BOSTON -- As good as the Houston Astros were this season, many of their top players took a step back from last season, when the club captured the first World Series championship in franchise history. Guys like George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez and Yuli Gurriel all had good 2018 seasons that were down a tick from their 2017 efforts.
The notable exception: Alex Bregman. Bregman, in his second full season as a big leaguer, broke out as an MVP candidate in 2018. He hit .286/.394/.532 (156 OPS+) with 51 doubles, 31 home runs, and more walks (96) than strikeouts (85) in 157 regular season games. Only six players this century finished a season with 50 doubles, 30 homers, and more walks and strikeouts:
Alex Bregman, 2018 Astros
David Ortiz, 2007 Red Sox
Albert Pujols, 2003 Cardinals
Carlos Delgado, 2000 Blue Jays
Todd Helton, 2000 Rockies
Beyond his on-field excellence, Bregman also brings a certain swagger to the Astros, a swagger that is bordering on cockiness. He sure does back it up though. Bregman is great, the Astros are great, and he knows it and he wants to make sure everyone else knows it too.
"It's hard to top his personality. He's got a little bit of everything," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. "That edge that he has is very unique ... Alex is going to be himself. He's comfortable in his own skin. He loves the camera, especially the one at the end of the dugout. And he loves the moment. And that kind of performance at the critical points of the game is starting to be legendary."
Legendary is a good way to describe Bregman's postseason exploits so far this October. He did come up with some clutch home runs last postseason -- most notably, he hit the eighth inning go-ahead solo home run against Chris Sale in ALDS Game 4 -- but finished with a .208/.256/.417 batting line in the team's 18 postseason games. That's not so great.
So far this postseason though, Bregman is hitting an even .500 (5 for 10) with seven walks and two hit-by-pitches through four games. That works out to a .737 -- .737! -- on-base percentage. Oh, and he's also struck out only once. Just once. Check out his last 13 plate appearances dating back to ALDS Game 2 against the Indians, starting with the most recent:
- Hit by pitch
- Fielder's choice (out at second)
- RBI single
- Intentional walk
- Reached on an error
- Hit by pitch
- Double (that hit the top of the wall and was nearly a homer)
- Solo home run
Bregman has reached base safely in 11 of his last 13 plate appearances and, when you include the fielder's choice and the error, he wound up on base in all 13 plate appearances. He hasn't made an actual out -- meaning an unproductive plate appearance that ended with Bregman back in the dugout -- since hitting a tapper back to Carlos Carrasco in the fourth inning of ALDS Game 2.
In addition to elite level offense, Bregman also plays the hell out of third base. He's a natural shortstop playing third and his athleticism and hands serve him very well at the hot corner. Given the final score (Justin Verlander in the fifth inning of ALCS Game 1 on Saturday.), it's easy to overlook Bregman's nifty play to get the force out at home when the Red Sox loaded the bases with one out against
That is not an easy play at all and Bregman made it look routine. He did that all night, really. Six times the Red Sox hit a ground ball to Bregman in ALCS Game 1 -- that includes batted balls with an exit velocities of 105.1 mph, 95.9 mph, and 95.3 mph -- and he turned every one into an out. He's great offensively, he's great defensively, and he's already established himself as a key figure in the clubhouse.
"It's amazing what he means for the team. At such a young age he becomes a superstar," said Altuve, the reigning AL MVP. "He has a great relationship with every single guy in the clubhouse. He's a leader, and, like I said, he can connect with pitchers, position players, coaches, everybody. And like I said many times, he's the biggest reason why we are playing the Red Sox right now."
The Astros are a powerhouse and it did take some luck for them to get where they are right now. They're lucky no team claimed Verlander on trade waivers last August, for example. Houston also needed some luck to land Bregman. They drafted Brady Aiken with No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, didn't sign him because of injury concerns, then received the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft as compensation. That's the pick they used to select Bregman, but only after the Diamondbacks took Dansby Swanson with the No. 1 selection.
To some degree Bregman fell into the Astros' lap. They weren't supposed to have that No. 2 pick in 2015 and they're fortunate the D-Backs passed on Bregman to take Swanson. Is it better to be lucky or good? It doesn't matter, the Astros are both. Bregman has quickly become an impact player and an MVP candidate at third base for Houston and he has been on a tour de force so far this postseason.
"It's a lot of energy. It's a lot of confidence, a lot of good vibes around the clubhouse, a lot of preparation. He's kind of a tone-setter in his own way, going about his business. You know, just a real pro," said Game 2 starter Gerrit Cole. "He always likes to keep things loose, that's certainly for sure. He loves his teammates. He loves the atmosphere, I think, just as much as he loves us individually. He's a joy to be around. You're excited to go see Alex when you come to the park."