The Houston Astros are just an incredible team. From MVPs to rookie phenoms to Cy Young caliber pitchers by the handful, they have everything a team could possibly want to win a title. Amid all this ridiculous, chart-topping talent lies perhaps their most skilled, polished hitter: Alex Bregman.
He’s not as quite the spark plug as Jose Altuve, not as frightfully, obviously powerful as Yordan Alvarez, but he’s amazing, and feared, in his own right. This was on raw display in last year’s ALCS, when he walked five times in the first two games, the Red Sox just avoiding his bat. More than anything, he’s disciplined. At just 18.1 percent, no qualified hitter in baseball swings at balls out of the zone less often than Bregman. He simply doesn’t chase. When he does though, what’s happening?
In raw numbers, we’re talking about 180 out-of-the-zone pitches that Bregman thought was a good pitch to hit. they look like this:
The locations of the various pitches make sense – high fastballs, sliders down and in or away, curves burying themselves in the dirt in front of the plate. The type of pitches that even the best of hitters get tricked into going after. More explicitly, Bregman’s breakdown features a pretty even spread of pitches:
Of note are the large number of fastball variants he goes after— including the changeup, which is just a fastball that’s lying to you— which tells a tale of Bregman hunting for the fastball but perhaps guessing wrong on which type was coming from the pitcher’s hand. In general it’s the same type of pitches he goes after anyway:
That’s every pitch Bregman has swung at this year, throwing into even more stark relief his hunting of the fastball, and the power of the slider to fool even the finest of hitters.
That mark, 18.1 percent O-Swing rate, is very good, a testament to Bregman’s patience. It’s a drop of nearly two points from a year ago, roughly matching his overall drop in swing rate from 37.1 percent to 35 percent. It’s also more than 13 points below the league average 31.5 percent O-Swing rate. He is a superlative hitter in this respect.
What’s truly interesting though, as Bregman’s league-leading rate settles in at the 18ish percent mark, is seeing what’s happened to that same mark league-wide since we starting tracking plate discipline stats in 2002. That year, the league average O-Swing rate was precisely where Bergman sits, 18.1 percent. Since 2002, the lowest mark set by a qualified hitter was John Olerud, when he swung at just 8.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, compared to an astounding 60.3 percent within it. If you want to talk about plate discipline kings, that’s a great conversation starter.
SO what are we to glean from this? Obviously, tracking technology has gotten better, so it’s possible that Olerud is getting the benefit of less accurate radar to boost his numbers. Another data point deserves attention though. Since 2002, average fastball velocity has risen from 89 mph to 93.1 this season.
Never mind the ever evolving world of pitch design. the massive spike in slider usage, setting another record this year at 18.2 percent across baseball, up from 16.9 last year, 14.8 in 2015 and just 12.1 in 2002. Things have changed in baseball. Pitches are more and more absurd, batters just swing at pitches that are strikes for 55 feet, then collapse into the dirt in that last little bit. So maybe it makes sense that chase rates have gone up so precipitously.
That comes through in Bregman’s own O-Zone pitch chart. It’s not the sliders he’s chasing or curves in the dirt. It’s mostly fastballs— high ones with big time spin rates that deceive the eye into thinking it’s going to drop more than it is, or cutters and two-seams that move like sliders and screwballs. These pitchers are doing things their ancestors couldn’t dream of. The rabbit ball we’re dealing with today is all that’s standing between us and another deadball era.
For Bregman, it could be that the rate he’s charting on balls out of the zone is simply the best we can hope for. Just last year the leader was Joey Votto at 16.4 percent, Andrew McCutchen second at 19.4. This year Bregman is the only guy under 20. Hitters are swinging harder and harder, not caring about missing if they can do big damage once or twice a game. He’s the best at not being pulled out of the zone, and with a 4.6 percent swinging strike rate one of the best at not swinging and missing. That, along with the power and the patience, makes him a supremely valuable player, and increasingly unique. Baseball today is about the dinger, the walk, and the strikeout. With that in mind, Bregman looks like nothing short of a demigod, and we’re just here enjoying it.
Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball at Let’s Go Tribe and Beyond the Box Score, and would love to hear from you. Nice words. @MerrillLunch.