Alex Bregman Is The Star The Astros Didn’t Know They’d Need

Think of the Houston Astros these past few seasons, and you’re probably picturing Jose Altuve, the team’s pint-sized sparkplug of a second baseman, or Carlos Correa, its megatalented modern-shortstop prototype. Perhaps you’re thinking of all the home runs launched by George Springer in the World Series last fall. Or maybe you enjoy great pitching, and you’re imagining bearded lefty Dallas Keuchel or rejuvenated legend Justin Verlander. Those are all good options, but the best player on the 2018 Astros — a club demonstrably better than the one that won last year’s World Series — has been a guy whose name is sometimes lost among the litany of stars on Houston’s roster: Alex Bregman.

Out of all the potential candidates, it’s Bregman who is leading the Astros in wins above replacement, edging out Verlander by a couple tenths of a win. And he’s had to be that good, too, given some of the injuries his team has faced in its championship defense. Bregman’s MVP-caliber breakout is just what Houston needed to maintain (if not increase) its position as World Series front-runners — and it’s a testament to the franchise’s incredible talent pipeline. Although the Astros have already won a title and established themselves as an annual contender, they continue to get superstar performances from less-than-expected places.

Bregman’s stellar 2018 campaign is the continuation of an ongoing development from top prospect (he was drafted second overall out of LSU in 2015) to big-league star. In just three MLB seasons, Bregman has nearly doubled his base-on-balls rate (from 6.9 percent as a rookie in 2016 to 12.8 percent this year) and halved his strikeout rate (from 24 percent to 12.6 percent), all while adding enough power to potentially clear 30 homers for the first time this season.

In an age of ever-increasing strikeouts, Bregman has become the rare player who walks more than he whiffs, joining an elite club with Mike Trout and Jose Ramirez as power hitters who can make that claim. While he doesn’t crush the ball quite as hard as other WAR machines like Trout and Mookie Betts, Bregman’s tremendous strike-zone discipline helps him consistently get into advantageous counts — and punish pitchers when they do have to give him something to hit.

Bregman is also surging at the right time. In addition to his heroics in the All-Star Game in July, he has a 1.030 on-base plus slugging since the beginning of June, which coincides with the Astros overtaking the surprising Seattle Mariners for first place in the AL West and building their lead to its current five-game state. Among team regulars over the past four weeks, Bregman has easily been Houston’s top hitter by OPS, and the Astros have otherwise struggled to hit (by their standards) over the same span, so it’s fair to say Bregman has rounded into peak form when Houston needed him most.

Houston probably didn’t expect to lean so much on Bregman blossoming into a star this year. But it’s a nice luxury to get this kind of season from a guy who might not have been among their five best players a year ago. (He ranked sixth on the team in WAR last season.)

The Astro who actually seemed poised for a monster year was Correa, after posting a couple of 5-WAR seasons before he even turned 23. Instead, he’s been limited by a back injury that has cost him 30 games and counting, with Bregman picking up the slack at shortstop in his stead. Correa is but one of a few underwhelming Astros this season, whether due to injuries or performance declines: Springer has taken a step back from his form of recent seasons (down from 4.8 WAR in 2017 to a 2.8-WAR pace this year), Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Reddick haven’t hit as well as usual, and Altuve is currently on the disabled list with a knee ailment. Meanwhile, the team’s once-dominant bullpen trio of Will Harris, Chris Devenski and Ken Giles — the latter of whom blew up, was demoted and then traded at the deadline for Roberto Osuna (himself serving a suspension for domestic violence) — had a combined ERA of 4.47.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for Houston, of course, but it’s impressive that the team has still managed to win at a blistering 102-win pace in spite of those potential setbacks.

It hasn’t all been because of Bregman, of course. Verlander, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole are each having Cy Young-caliber seasons atop Houston’s rotation, and Keuchel has been his usual steady self, too. Together, the Astros’ staff is enjoying a season for the ages. Toss in some solid work out of the bullpen by Brad Peacock, who has a 3.09 ERA as a do-everything reliever — plus, let’s face it, pretty good seasons from the usual suspects (even in “down” years) — and Bregman’s gotten plenty of help carrying the load for Houston.

But that fact that Bregman now officially stands right alongside Altuve, Correa and that stacked starting rotation among the Astros’ signature stars has been an important development for the defending champs. In a ridiculously top-heavy 2018 American League (hello, Red Sox, Yankees and Indians!), Bregman’s breakout has helped Houston keep pace with the best the game has to offer, and it’s given them plenty of reason to envision another championship banner hanging in Minute Maid Park.

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