Is Alex Bregman the Next Jose Ramirez?

If I used this article title exactly one year ago today, you might think Bregman has a chance to lead all of fantasy in terms of overall value. As I write this today, the perception has a negative connotation. Jose Ramirez put together arguably two of the best back-to-back fantasy seasons in recent years from 2017 through 2018. Below are Ramirerz’s Roto numbers throughout 2017 and 2018.

Seasons Runs HR RBI SB AVG
2017-2018 217 68 188 51 .294

You don’t need to be a fantasy expect to realize the brilliance in those numbers. Ramirez averaged 200+ R/RBI, 34 homers, and 25 steals over those two seasons and combined for 13.5 fWAR. Meanwhile, Bregman is in the midst of following up his 2018 breakout where he had a 157 wRC+ and earned 7.4 WAR per FanGraphs (fWAR) with a very impressive 146 wRC+ and pacing for 6.4 fWAR in 2019. He’s on pace to best his 31 home runs from last year and other than a dip in stolen bases, the similarities to Jose Ramirez the previous two seasons are extremely similar. Let me explain.

It’s not just the small stature and elite production from these two players that make them alike. It’s also their plate discipline. Bregman is walking more than his did last season and is currently sitting with an elite walk rate of 17.3%! His plate approach is arguably the best in the league. Among qualified hitters, Bregman has offered at pitches outside the zone just 17.4% of the time which is nearly two percent better than the next closest hitter in Mookie Betts and almost four percent better than Mike Trout. Let’s do our first comparison since that’s basically what the title is inferring. Here are the key plate discipline metrics for each player (Ramirez 2017-2018 and Bregman 2018-2019).

Player O-Swing% Z-Contact% SwStr% BB% K%
Ramirez (17-18) 23.7% 92.4% 5.1% 11.8% 11.1%
Bregman (18-19) 19.1% 92.5% 4.4% 15.2% 12.5%

These numbers are extremely similar across the board but clearly, Bregman has the edge in terms of laying off pitches outside the zone. Still, you won’t find many players with better plate discipline over a two-year span than these two guys. OK, so what’s the point here. We have two elite level talents with similar approaches who are both below-average in stature. So they are little more similar, what’s next? How about the batted ball profile?

Neither Ramirez in 2017/18 nor Bregman in 2018/19 have shown great Statcast metrics. Take a look at their hard hit and exit velocity in the images below. The top image shows Ramierz’s metrics from 2018 and Bregman’s for this year.

Sure, those are fine and both have managed very solid xwOBA but that doesn’t quite jive with elite-level production. Back to the batted ball profiles. How can a hitter maximize his power without being able to regularly barrel balls up? How about pulling the ball with regularity? Yes, pulling the ball, but also pulling the ball in the air. A hitter’s bat speed is higher at the point where contact is made on pulled balls because the further along in the swing path, the faster the bat head is traveling. In addition, balls don’t have to travel as far as the fences are shorter down the lines. It seems obvious, but here is the evidence. In 2019, pulled fly balls are home runs 34.1% of the time in 2019 compared to just 11.1% and 6.0% on balls hit to center and the opposite field, respectively. In other words, by just pulling the ball in the air, a hitter’s probability of a home run is tripled compared to hitting a fly ball to center and the probability is nearly six times higher than hitting it the other way.

After knowing what we know about each of these players, you’d think that both players pull quite a few fly balls. Let’s find out if this is true.

Player Pull% Fly Ball% Pulled Fly Ball% HR/FB on Pulled FB
Ramirez 17-18 48.1% 42.8% 34.1% 34.2%
Bregman 18-19 47.7% 43.8% 33.1% 32.2%
League AVG 17-19 40.2% 35.5% 23.8% 33.4%

A few things jump out at first with this table. The first thing I notice is that Ramirez and Bregman once again have a very similar approach when it comes to batted balls. Both players clearly emphasize pulling the ball and getting the ball in the air. Both players pull the ball in the air about 10% more often than league-average. I can’t argue with their approach, both have had an insane amount of success pulling fly balls. You’ll also notice that both players are essentially league-average in terms of home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) on pulled fly balls. That’s because, as I discussed above, neither player has been able to generate elite exit velocities or above-average power metrics. Only hitters with elite power metrics and exit velocities can succeed with power to all fields. Ramirez and Bregman do not qualify in those respects. Both players have provided high-end power outputs with this approach but Ramirez has struggled to do so this year.

Now that we’ve seen both players have very similar plate approaches and batted ball profiles, I wanted to take a look at each player’s spray charts. Remember, Jose Ramirez is a switch-hitter, but his approach is the same regardless of which side of the plate he hits from. He wants to pull the ball and pull it in the air. So, for the sake of comparisons, I’m looking at Ramirez’s spray chart hitting from the right side between 2017 and 2018 and Bregman’s spray chart for just 2019.  This way, the number of plate appearances is a little closer (386 PA from Ramirez and 451 PA for Bregman).

Pretty damn close isn’t it? If you’re wondering about some of those short homers to left from Bregman, only a few were at home in the short Crawford Boxes as he’s hit 17 bombs on the road! He’s still taking advantage of wall scrapers even on the road. Now for the final item, popups or infield fly balls. With an increase in fly balls and pulled fly balls often comes an increase in popups. Popups and infield flys are essentially automatic outs. For this portion, I want to focus on Statcast’s popup metric because it’s an isolated batted ball type. Over a FanGraphs, the infield fly ball (IFFB%) is a percentage of the fly ball category. Typically, players with well-above-average popup rates will have suppressed BABIPs. Ah, there it is. The main reseason for Ramirez’s struggles this year and in the second half of 2018 were due to a very low BABIP. His BABIP since the All-Star break in 2018 is just .230. A big reason why is due to the number of popups Ramirez has hit. Since the All-Star break in 2018, he’s hit 66 popups which are over 12% of the batted balls he’s hit. Of those 66 popups, only one has fallen for a hit, a batting average of .015. 

League average batting average on popups since 2018 is just .022. In other words, if a batter hits a popup, he has a 2.2% chance of the ball dropping in for a hit. In addition, the league average popup rate is about seven percent. OK, so we understand why Ramirez has struggled with batting average and BABIP but if you remember in 2017, Ramirez hit .318 but curbed his popups that year near league-average at 7.7%. How does Bregman fair in the category of popups? Bregman hit .286 in 2018 with a popup rate of 10.7%. That’s relatively fortunate. Some people saw his .289 BABIP and thought Bregman could hit .300 this year. I projected him for a slight dip in BA because of the elevated popup rate. This year, Bregman has taken those lazy fly balls to a new level. He’s sporting a 13.4% popup rate this year which is nearly double the league-average. In addition, his fly ball rate is up a tad while line drives are down. Yes folks, Bregman’s current .242 BABIP is not an illusion, it’s real and it’s warranted. 

Bregman might very well end up being the next Jose Ramirez. In fact, I think he already is the next Jose Ramirez. His pop up rate is up since the start of June. The home runs have continued but I don’t expect an increase in Bregman’s BABIP moving forward unless he curbs those popups. He’s already at a disadvantage when it comes to BABIP given his elevated fly ball and heavy pull rates. One point in Bregman’s favor is defensive shifts. He’s shifted on under 50% of the time despite a heavy pull rate on ground balls. Even when shifted on, his BABIP remains steady, so it doesn’t appear to be much of a factor. Ramirez, on the other hand, is being shifted on about 2/3rds of the time and his wRC+ against the shift is down 30 points.

Owners are obviously very happy with Bregman’s production, and while I don’t expect a complete collapse as we saw with Ramirez from July 2018 through June 2019, there is still some downside despite the elite plate skills. But what happens if he goes through a Ramirez-like slump with a sub-220 BABIP? Bregman doesn’t have the stolen bases to lessen the blow to fantasy teams (just four steals in five attempts this year). His power numbers are extremely inflated based on his home run per barrel rate (HR/BRL%) and lucky home runs. He’s carrying a 94% HR/BRL rate (league average is around 59%) and has hit 10, yes 10 non-barreled home runs or as I call them, lucky home runs. Given his heavy pull rate, Bregman has been known to hit these lucky homers, he did it 11 times last year but the difference is he barreled up 39 balls last season compared to just 17 thus far in 2019. You can see with his spray chart, there’s a fine line between a home run and an out with the majority of his home runs. Jose Ramirez is currently on the other side of that line in 2019. Bregman might just be the outlier and continue hitting for a respectable average with 30+ homers every year. But if he hits .235 with 18 homers and six steals next year, don’t be surprised.

Keep in mind, I don’t dislike Bregman, he’s a fantastic player. His plate discipline is elite and he plays on one of the best teams in the league. His floor is still pretty safe given his patience and surrounding cast. Where are you taking Bregman in 2020? First round, second round, thrid round? I’ll be slotting him in the third round as of now. There is just too much upside in the first two rounds to take the chance on Breggy.

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