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Bregman's deep desire to improve paying off

Young Astros star putting together MVP-caliber second season
MLB.com @RichardJustice

To trace how Astros third baseman Alex Bregman has inserted himself into the American League Most Valuable Player Award conversation, we begin with a conversation that took place a few days after last season ended.

"I witnessed an MVP firsthand in Jose Altuve," Bregman said. "I asked him what he did during the offseason, and he said he trains his core."

To trace how Astros third baseman Alex Bregman has inserted himself into the American League Most Valuable Player Award conversation, we begin with a conversation that took place a few days after last season ended.

"I witnessed an MVP firsthand in Jose Altuve," Bregman said. "I asked him what he did during the offseason, and he said he trains his core."

More on that later. Here's the abbreviated case for Bregman:

▪ Fourth in the AL in Wins Above Replacement at 7.5.

▪ First in the Majors in extra-base hits (81) and doubles (50).

▪ Ninth in the AL in home runs (30).

▪ First in the Majors in Win Probability Added (5.68). (Win Probability Added is an attempt to blend an analytics crunching of numbers with the context of game situations, such as "clutch" at-bats. Bregman was excellent in this area last season as well. His tiebreaking eighth-inning home run off Chris Sale might have been the biggest hit the Astros got in a clinching Game 4 of last season's AL Division Series. And his run-scoring single in the bottom of the 10th inning ended a five-hour, 17-minute World Series Game 5.)

Video: WS2017 Gm5: Bregman walks off Astros in the 10th

After Wednesday's milestone game in the Astros' 5-4 win over the Tigers, Bregman was hitting .366 with five homers and 14 RBIs in 11 games this month and having reached base in 39 straight games.

How's it going, Alex?

"It's been pretty good," he said. "But [there's] so much work to do. So much to get better at. I got off to a slow start and kind of been swimming uphill since then. But it's been a pretty good year, and a lot to build on and get better at in all phases of the game. I put myself in a hole. I'm definitely going to try and figure out how to get off to a better start next year."

After Bregman took five days off last fall to celebrate winning the World Series and rest his body, he returned to the gym. He's not the first player to discover the importance of strengthening the body's core. Phillies right-hander Jake Arrieta, to name one, has credited a similar regimen with helping turn his career around.

For Bregman, it was simple.

"I want to be able to drive the ball to all fields," he said. "I really worked on that."

And so by the time Bregman reported to Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Fla., in February, he was confident he had done what Altuve advised him to do. He was halfway there.

"As soon as I got to Spring Training, I was like, 'You know, the best players in this game walk,'" he said. "Mike Trout. Jose Ramirez. Mookie Betts. All these guys walk, and they swing at strikes.

"Joey Votto, he walks. I decided I wanted to bring my walk numbers up, and that's not necessarily taking a bunch of pitches. I feel like that's why I got off to a rough start this year -- because I was taking pitches."

There's a fine line between being passive and aggressive.

"One hundred percent," Bregman said.

Bregman was hitting .214 on April 17 and had hit one home run in 70 at-bats. His smart new plan was being tested.

"At the beginning of this year, I was taking pitches," he said. "I wasn't really looking to do damage and only swinging in the strike zone. I was taking good pitches that I could do damage with, and then ending up walking."

And then something clicked.

"I started walking based on pitches being thrown outside the zone, outside of where I could drive," Bregman said.

Bregman is not completely certain how his game plan fell into place, but what has happened since is there for anyone to see. Since then, he has been among baseball's most productive -- and most improved -- hitters.

Video: HOU@DET: Bregman collects 3 milestones vs. Tigers

To put this discipline into perspective, consider this: Bregman, Votto, Ramirez, Trout and Carlos Santana are the only qualified hitters in MLB with more walks than strikeouts. To understand what Bregman has done is one thing. To understand how is more complicated. He simply may be one of those guys who combines a freakishly high level of talent with a burning desire to be great.

"I think it has a lot to do with people I was surrounded with growing up," Bregman said. "My father loved the game. The people at the Albuquerque Academy I grew up with teaching me the game.

"And then so many people along the way. Coach [Ray] Birmingham at the University of New Mexico gave me a speech when I was 13 years old at the end of a baseball camp that said, 'If you want to be good at this game, you have to decide.'

"Deciding meant that there's no going to prom, you have to decide you want to be really good. I've felt like since that day I've been focused on the ins and outs of the game, and I've fallen in love with it from about that day one."

Let's be clear about Bregman's AL MVP Award chances: He's still a long shot. Red Sox outfielder Betts is the clear front-runner, and Trout, Martinez and Ramirez finished ahead of Bregman in MLB.com's latest MVP Awards poll.

But in just Bregman's second full Major League season, he's in the mix.

"And," Astros manager AJ Hinch said, "he's 24 years old. He's going to get better. He's driven to be great. As good as he has been this season, there's more there."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Houston Astros, Alex Bregman