Nothing against Trout, who has earned his "best player in the game" status. In the same way fans from other eras speak of Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, we’ll speak of Trout. In MLB.com's most recent survey of its reporters and editors, Trout got all 38 first-place MVP votes and Bregman got all 38 second-place votes.
But before the Baseball Writers' Association of America voters make their choices, I hope they allow the season to play out, and that they consider both players in the context of their 2019 performances.
Here’s a case for Bregman:
The Astros are sprinting toward a third straight 100-win season and third straight division title. In that way, Bregman's at-bats are different. One argument is that Trout should not be punished for things outside his control. But there’s a counter to that.
“That’s a really good debate,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said, “and when you have a guy who’s on the winning team, it’s easy for me to vote on that side. I think it certainly is a tiebreaker.”
“All these games matter to all these guys,” Hinch said. “It’s not an exhibition game. I have great respect for the guys who are doing it on teams not in contention. You shouldn’t punish Mike Trout. At the same time, I think it’s a notch in the favor of guys that are doing it with playoff pressure or playoff-chase pressure.”
In prodding Bregman to discuss the AL MVP Award, this is where he begins.
“For me, it’s winning,” Bregman said. “When I look at a season, and it’s all said and done, and the thing I look for is, first off, did my team win? That’s what the game is all about. It’s winning. I think we’ve done a really good job of that so far.”
2. Answering the bell
Bregman has started 140 of 146 games, taking a day off only when Hinch orders rest. Every other Astros infielder has been sidelined by injuries, and Bregman has started 86 games at third, 49 at shortstop and five at designated hitter. At one point, the Astros were without George Springer, José Altuve and Carlos Correa.
“That’s the definition of value,” Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell said. “He plays third, he plays short and he moves to the other side of the infield because of the shift. He does that and still makes plays. He’s that day-in-and-day-out presence that never goes away. Do you know how important that is to a team?”
Hinch agrees with this, saying: “We don’t talk about Astros injuries very often, but we have lost Altuve, Springer, Correa at different times, and he was very much a constant in the middle of that.”
Bregman could tie Jim Thome as the youngest third basemen in the expansion era (since 1961) to slash at least .300/.400/.500 with 35 or more home runs. And he’d be only the 10th primary third baseman in that span to reach those marks, period. Bregman is second to Trout in the AL in fWAR, OBP, wRC+ and is third with a 1.002 OPS, trailing Trout and Nelson Cruz.
And while Trout has a small edge in both flavors of WAR (FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference), the margin is slim (8.6 to 7.2 per FanGraphs, 8.1 to 7.4 via Baseball Reference), and even the biggest WAR advocates will tell you that differences of that magnitude aren’t significant in a single-season sample given the vagaries of defensive metrics. That’s especially true looking at Baseball-Reference, where the gap is less than a win.
Bregman’s 101 walks speak of both his plate discipline and the respect with which other teams treat him. Trout leads the Majors with 110 walks, including 14 intentional walks. Those 14 are a tipoff that Trout is drawing walks, in part, because he’s on a team with a spotty lineup.
Teams simply do not have to pitch to Trout because there are easier options behind him. Houston’s lineup may be baseball’s deepest, making it hard to pitch around any of the hitters in the middle.
“Trout doesn’t have the lineup behind him that Alex does,” Bagwell said. “It’s not, 'Forget it, we’re not pitching to Alex.' He’s not going to get those unintentional intentional walks. With our lineup, they can’t do that.”
Bregman has made himself into a first-rate defensive third baseman by sheer force of work. He was upset by his poor defensive metrics last season, so he set about upgrading that part of his game. He has done that: His 4.3 UZR/150 is fifth among current AL third basemen who have played at least 700 innings at the hot corner.
And don’t forget about how, as noted earlier, Bregman has regularly filled in at shortstop for the injured Correa and done an admirable job. An elite hitter who can slide over, play a tougher position and replace a fellow All-Star? Pretty valuable.
Trout’s intangibles are off the charts. However, to the people who know him best, Bregman is going to be an MVP at some point in his career because he’s that perfect combination of talent and work ethic.
“His attention to detail and just his love of the game of baseball,” teammate Justin Verlander said of the things that have most impressed him about Bregman. “He truly loves the game. He shows up early. He studies everything. He makes everybody around him better.”
For instance, when the Astros' 2018 season ended with Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi grabbing a Bregman liner off his shoetops in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, Bregman was so frustrated that he was back in the gym the next morning.
“That guy eats, sleeps, breathes baseball,” A’s third baseman Matt Chapman said. “His success isn’t luck. His success is because of his preparation before the game, the amount of video he watches, his knowledge of the game. He’s a very smart baseball player.”
One Houston gym has a motto scribbled on a wall for every workout warrior: "Train like Bregman."
“When you’re on his team, there’s a valuable feel to him that’s hard to quantify or hard to evaluate from the outside,” Hinch said. “We know exactly what he means to this team, and it makes him very much the frontrunner in our eyes.”
Bregman and Chapman were Team USA 'mates when Bregman was at LSU and Chapman at Cal State Fullerton. A friendship and competition grew from there, and each has offered tips to the other along the way.
“I don’t really know what I can help him with,” Chapman said. “He seems to be better than me at everything.”
Chapman’s defense -- the best in baseball at third (11.5 UZR/150) -- has driven Bregman to improve.
“Any tip I can give him on defense, I would,” Chapman said. “But I would love to hit like he does. He’s an amazing player. I just really respect his play. But there’s a lot behind the scenes that people maybe don’t realize.”
Bregman brings all these kinds of conversations back to winning. He would love to be an MVP, but there’s a larger picture.
“It would mean hard work paid off,” Bregman said. “It’s not an individual award, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a team award. To play meaningful games and try and win a division, a pennant, a World Series, that’s what it’s all about. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.”