After Alex Bregman hit his 30th home run of the season in Boston in early September, he met with the media after the game, attired in a hoodie and backward Bleacher Report hat, and a reporter asked if he had ever envisioned hitting 30 home runs in the major leagues.
His response: "Yeah."
The third baseman for the Houston Astros is not lacking in confidence. He's not going to offer up some false modesty or give an extraneous answer when one word will suffice. Of course I expected to hit 30 home runs in the majors. After all, this is a player who, when officials were struggling to fill out the field for the Home Run Derby, was a willing participant, challenging sluggers several inches taller and many pounds heavier -- and he expected to win.
In the same game in which he hit his 30th home run, Bregman struck out against a soft-tossing Red Sox lefty named Bobby Poyner, who threw him a 2-2 changeup below the knees with some late movement. Pretty much a perfect pitch. That didn't matter to Bregman. After swinging over the changeup, he trudged slowly back to the dugout, looking like his dog had run away. The Astros were up 5-2 at the time, but there were two runners on base, and Bregman doesn't like to strike out, no matter the score.
That mindset has perhaps allowed Bregman to thrive in clutch situations this season. He hit .386/.488/.735 with runners in scoring position, the second-highest OPS in the majors behind Mike Trout and the highest slugging percentage. He hit .330/.440/.505 in high-leverage situations as defined by Baseball-Reference.com. Against the A's, the team the Astros ended up fighting for the AL West title, he hit .362 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 18 games, including a three-run homer off Lou Trivino in a crucial late-August game that was one of the Astros' biggest hits of the season.
"He loves the big moment, loves it," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
"Oh, hell yeah. I love it. Love it. Love it," Bregman said. "I want all eyes. My biggest moment. I love it. I don't know what it is about those situations, but I get pissed when I don't get the opportunity, and I'm fired up when I get the opportunity. I'm not afraid to fail. I'm not afraid to get out in those situations."
"I feel like in those situations, when the pressure's on, if you stick to your plan and your approach and you know who you are and you don't try to be anybody you're not, then you're going to come through. Put pressure on yourself in practice so that way, when pressure situations in the game come, you're ready. Pressure's a privilege. You gotta love those situations."
Bregman's love of the big moment -- along with his short, compact swing and No. 2 on the back of his jersey -- has brought comparisons to Derek Jeter. Indeed, as the Astros go for a second straight World Series victory and pending dynasty, it's Bregman who might flourish as their version of Mr. October.
His overall numbers last October don't scream out at you -- .208 with four home runs and 10 RBIs in 18 games -- but he had several huge plays Astros fans will fondly remember. He hit a first-inning home run off Boston's Chris Sale in Game 1 of the American League Division Series for an early 1-0 lead. In Game 4, with the Astros trailing 3-2 in the eighth, he tied the game with another home run off Sale as Houston went on to clinch the series. In Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees, with the Astros leading 1-0 in the fifth inning, he made an instinctive, gutsy throw to nail Greg Bird at home plate:
That might have been the key play of the entire playoffs. The inning could have easily unraveled if Bregman hadn't made a perfect throw -- the game would have been tied, with two runners on base. In the World Series, of course, there was his walk-off hit with two outs in the 10th inning of Game 5:
The funny thing about the Jeter comparison is the story had always been that Bregman wears No. 2 in honor of his boyhood idol while growing up in New Mexico (his dad had played college baseball there). A couple of weeks ago, however, Bregman said he wears No. 2 because the Diamondbacks bypassed him with the first pick in the draft in 2015. The Astros took him with the second pick.
"I was super-happy to come to a good organization like the Astros that was up-and-coming," Bregman told the Arizona Republic. "But, yeah, I was pissed. I wanted to be the No. 1 overall pick. Part of the reason I wear No. 2 is because of that." Indeed, Bregman wore No. 8 at LSU, not No. 2.
There's also, I would suggest, a major contrast with Jeter. While Jeter played with a stoic intensity -- his emotion rarely increased beyond a fist pump from the top step of the dugout -- you sometimes had the feeling that winning baseball games was merely an outlet for his competitive nature. Jeter would have been driven to succeed at the top of his field whether he worked on Wall Street or became a heart surgeon or sold real estate.
Even if Bregman didn't have the talent to play in the majors, however, it's easy to envision him still playing baseball on some dusty field in Albuquerque against a bunch of dudes with beer guts.
"He loves baseball. I've never seen anyone who loves baseball more than him," Hinch said. "He works, he thinks, he takes something from everyone that's crossed his path. That's kind of what a baseball player is supposed to be."
Red Sox manager Alex Cora was a coach with the Astros in 2017 and became tight with Bregman. He said the two remain in touch.
"First of all, he's very talented," Cora said. "He likes baseball. I'm passionate about the game. He's probably more passionate. It's unreal, it's unreal. He wants to be great. He always finds something in that game, or during a series. It's amazing. I'm very proud of what he's doing. ... When you're a 1-2 (Round 1, No. 2 draft pick), you are special. The fact that he was a 1-2 and not a 1-1, that makes him stay hungry to keep playing the way he plays."
While Bregman can match Jeter's intensity, he's also willing to have some fun. After he hit that 30th home run, the Astros celebrated with a bobsled routine in the dugout. Bregman laughed that he built the team for speed because it was "light in the front and heavy in the back," with Bregman driving and Tony Kemp, Jake Marisnick and Martin Maldonado behind him. Earlier that week, the Astros enjoyed one of his home runs with a curling celebration. Can you picture Jeter doing this?
Is Bregman cocky? Sure, it can be interpreted that way. He also shaved off a mustache in the middle of a game earlier this season. In a Sept. 1 game against the Angels, he told his teammates he was going to homer on the first pitch from Felix Pena, and then he homered on the first pitch. There's also the Bregman Stare.
"He's very comfortable being Alex Bregman," Hinch said with a smile.
The other difference between him and Jeter: Jeter never hit 31 home runs or 51 doubles, topping out at 24 and reaching 40 doubles just once. Jeter's stroke was to shoot the ball to right field, whereas Bregman tries to pull it.
"I hit the ball hard in the air to the pull side," Bregman told me. "If you hit the ball hard in the air to the pull side, you'll hit homers. That's the goal. If you look around, Jose Ramirez -- that's what he does. He pulls the ball in the air -- hard."
Bregman is listed at 6-foot -- Hinch joked about that being his "baseball height" -- but is probably a couple of inches shorter. He doesn't have the raw power to hit home runs to the opposite field like an Aaron Judge or J.D. Martinez. Bregman has pulled 25 of his home runs, with three to center and three to the opposite field.
In a recent video with ESPN analyst Alex Rodriguez that aired during a Sunday night game, Bregman further discussed his hitting approach. "Last year [when he hit 19 home runs in his first full season], I'd try to hit down on the baseball, and I'd either hook it to the pull side on the ground or cut it and pop up to first base or right field. This year, instead of trying to hit down, I try to hit through and just stay above the ball," Bregman said.
He noted how fastballs up in the strike zone aren't as high as perceived -- there is, after all, no such thing as a rising fastball.
"Hit the upper half of the ball," he said. "When the ball is down [in the zone], try to hit the bottom of the ball."
Bregman is also the rare hitter with more walks than strikeouts. "Don't swing at balls" is one of his other mantras. It has allowed him to maximize his power potential. Most impressively, while the Astros' offense hasn't been the powerhouse attack it was a season ago -- Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer all missed significant time with injuries or struggled at times -- Bregman has been the constant.
"He's been our backbone," Springer said. "He's been consistent. He's starting to show who he is. It's been awesome."
After finishing that series in Boston, Bregman had a 14-game homerless streak. Mookie Betts, meanwhile, continued to rake and became the clear AL MVP favorite over Bregman and the other candidates. Don't be surprised, however, if Bregman is the MVP of October.