After big '18, Bregman still working to improve

March 20th, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- was back in the weight room 12 hours after last season ended, though he hadn’t planned it that way. He did this despite being physically spent, mentally drained.

“I was so mad,” he said. “Sad and angry and kind of depressed. I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing."

As Astros manager A.J. Hinch put it, “I don’t think there’s an off button for Bregman.”

Bregman has watched the ending to the Astros' season a few dozen times. It still eats at him. He still watches it thinking the baseball might fall in.

Had Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi not reeled in Bregman’s liner in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, the Astros believe they might have ended up hoisting a second straight World Series trophy.

“Oh yeah,” Bregman said. “It was an unbelievable play. I thought it was 2017 all over again.”

Bregman eventually ended up taking some time off and reflected on what the 2018 season meant to his career. This was his breakthrough season, one that definitively established him as one of baseball’s best players and a big reason the Astros are about to sign him to a five-year, $100-million extension, according to a source. The Astros have not confirmed the deal.

“I thought I’d played horrible in the big leagues until then,” Bregman said. “I felt there was so much more to do.”

If this sounds like the kind of sound-clip thing athletes say because they think they’re supposed to say it, it isn't. That's not Bregman. Like his manager said, there’s no off switch. So while the rest of us can see his season and a half before 2018 as an arc toward stardom -- .818 OPS in 204 games -- Bregman was obsessed with getting better.

“He loves the game more than any young player I’ve ever known,” former Astros teammate Brian McCann once said.

“He’s baseball 365 days a year and has a great way about how much energy he has every day and how happy he is every day," Hinch added.

Bregman is also among the Astros' most active players on social media, offering glimpse after glimpse of his personal life and engaging fans. As's Brian McTaggart reported, Opendorse, an athlete marketing platform, reported Bregman’s total social media engagements during the 2018-19 offseason were the highest in MLB and more than double that of the next highest player on the list, Marcus Stroman of the Blue Jays.

“I think it’s just that -- a little peek into our lives,” Bregman said. “It takes no effort out of me. It literally is worry about baseball 24/7 and give the fans a little bit of love.”

Give the fans a little bit of love? What a concept.

“Love it," Hinch said. "I think our sport is full of big personalities, interesting stories, interesting backgrounds. Never has there been a greater time in our sport to showcase that. Obviously, you don’t want it to be a distraction or to overwhelm what the greater goal is. But these guys should showcase what they’re about and enjoy their life as millennials.”

And that enjoyment shows through in the dugout, too. Bregman’s celebratory dugout stare has become wildly popular among Astros teammates and fans.

Now, back to 2018, the season that convinced the Astros to lock Bregman up through the 2024 season. (Bregman was already signed for '19, so the extension begins in '20.)

Here's what Bregman accomplished in 2018:

• 7.6 fWAR trailed only Mookie Betts, Mike Trout and Jose Ramirez among all Major League players.

• 51 doubles led the Majors.

• .926 OPS (7th in the Majors)

• .396 wOBA (5th)

• All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award winner, and fifth in AL MVP Award voting.

Bregman calls 2018 “a step in the right direction."

"I got a lot better," he said. "I learned a lot about my game and learned what I needed to get better at. Looking back on the year, it was something to build off of and get better.

“I worked on a lot of different stuff offensively. Right now, I still feel like there’s so much more to do. I personally know I can be a 1.000 OPS guy every year. I felt like I learned a lot. Learned a lot about my swing. Made some adjustments with my thought process in the box, which helped.”

One thing he has done as well as anyone is figure out that fine line between chasing too many pitches and being aggressive.

“I think there’s a lot of trust in being selectively aggressive I guess,” he said. “Looking for your pitch you can drive, but not swinging if it’s not there and not worrying about, 'Oh no, I’m down 0-2.' I feel as comfortable as I do at 0-0. I don’t know. I still struck out too much for my liking [85 times in 705 plate appearances]. I want to strike out less than 20 times.”

Did we mention defense? Those metrics weren’t so kind, and playing in a division that also has baseball’s best defensive third baseman, Oakland’s Matt Chapman, Bregman has another measuring stick for his game. He believes that offseason elbow surgery will help his defense. As for the rest of it, he's spent hours this spring working on it.

“I don’t think we’ve figured out the defensive metrics as an industry as a whole,” Hinch said. "But if that’s what irritates him to take a step forward defensively, then maybe I do like the defensive metrics.

“He’s working really hard on his footwork at third base [and] his defense. He’s got a guy in our division he’s very competitive with in Matt Chapman. That will be fun to watch him become a better and better defender. He’s already an athletic defender. He can be even better.”

In less than three years since his debut midway through the 2016 season, Bregman, 24, has established himself as one of the faces of the greatest era of Astros baseball. Of this, he’s aware. And also proud.

“[This team is] something we don’t take for granted,” Bregman said. “We cherish it. We want to make this time last as long as possible. We want to keep everybody together. We love each other. It’s a giant family. We have fun. It’s a job, but it’s also a blast coming out and playing every single day with these guys.”