HOUSTON -- During the Little League World Series, it became commonplace to see All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman in the Houston Astros' clubhouse, cheering on Team Louisiana with the same exuberance and energy the Little League champions showed on the field. Once they lifted the trophy, the former LSU Tiger took to Instagram and invited Team Louisiana to a game in Houston.
As Bregman approached the group of eager Little Leaguers at the Astros' penultimate home game of the regular season, one of the first questions he asked them was, "How much time did you guys get off from school?"
Ryder Planchard, 12-year-old third baseman for Team Louisiana, quickly responded, "Two and a half weeks!"
Bregman's reaction was as natural as you would expect: "That's sweet! I'm sure you guys liked that." The Astros star quickly looked over at the cameras huddled around and added, "I mean, school is important! But, I mean, isn't baseball so much better?"
That sums up Alex Bregman. His childlike obsession with the game has never wavered. It's a grade of enthusiasm he can share with a group of Little Leaguers on their level. What has continued to evolve is his obsession with perfecting his craft and being the best player on the planet.
"I don't think it's possible to be the best if you don't obsess over it as if you are the worst. Nothing comes easy. The work is what gets you here, but also what keeps you here," Bregman said.
"He's a baseball rat through and through," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said with a wry smile. "He loves baseball more than anyone I've ever met. It's no surprise to anyone that knows him how hard he works every single day, and it's no surprise to anyone that he is in this MVP conversation."
That's exactly where Bregman finds himself, playing his way into a very real MVP candidacy. His performance has helped his team earn a third straight American League West title and a third straight 100-win season. His numbers speak for themselves -- 39 home runs, 76 extra-base hits, 117 runs scored, another 108 driven in, 7.8 WAR -- but it's easy to get lost in the stats. Hinch explains that Bregman's value can't be measured through totals tallying what he has done on the field.
"All you have to do is spend a little bit of time with us and you'll see the impact he has both on the field and in and around our club," Hinch said. "He's certainly a big personality, the guys revolve around him. He's the definition of the word 'valuable' in this league. I'm proud of the work that he's done. We've asked a lot of Alex this season. He's played the most games. He's played multiple positions. I've moved him around throughout the middle of the batting order. He's a tremendous player, a tireless worker and he's always evolving. Can't give enough praise for the way he goes about his business, and how he impacts this team."
Former AL MVP and fellow All-Star Jose Altuve chimed in as well, noting, "When I see a player as mature as Alex, he's so intelligent, the only advice I give as a former MVP winner is to keep working hard; making sure he doesn't let the success affect work routines. We don't need to worry about that with him."
Bregman finished fifth in the voting for AL MVP in 2018. Despite having similar numbers this season, his value skyrocketed this summer when he was asked to step in as the starting shortstop following a myriad of injuries to All-Star Carlos Correa. Bregman's fielding percentage at the premium position is a sure-handed .985, which would place him fourth in the majors at shortstop if he had enough games at that position to qualify.
"It's so important to have a player like him in this clubhouse. To have him shift over and fill in for me shows his versatility and how vital he is to us," said Correa, recently back in action. The Astros' regular at short has played in just 75 games this season due to a couple stints on the injured list.
Of course, the conversation about the AL MVP cannot be had without mentioning Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. But the two-time winner of the award (who also has four second-place finishes) underwent season-ending foot surgery last week, and all of Trout's numbers and accolades were once again delivered for an Angels team that won't be in the postseason picture. Still, Trout remains the betting favorite for the award in Las Vegas. But in Houston, you won't find anyone in the home clubhouse who will agree with that.
"He's extremely important for this club. Everyone has seen the production this season," Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel said Bregman. "For me, with all due respect to all of the talented players in this league, Bregman has my vote for MVP. He's hardly missed any games, and it's exciting to watch him not only play but also how he approaches every day."
During Bregman's meeting with Team Louisiana, some of the young ballplayers told him that they made friends with several kids from Team Venezuela during the Little League World Series, but they couldn't communicate due to the language barrier. Bregman, a 25-year-old New Mexico native from Albuquerque, responded by telling them the story about how he learned how to speak Spanish at their age so he could communicate to his teammates in travel ball.
"He thinks he's Hispanic. He comes here every day to play baseball, but also to practice his Spanish," Gurriel cracked. "He walks over to me and starts spitting out all these phrases in his broken Spanish and it gets me laughing every time. He's gotten better over the years ... but he still needs work."
It's those types of things that make his candidacy unique. Not just a burning desire to win, not just being an electric hitter and flashy fielder, but also an ability to read the room, lighten the mood or fire up the clubhouse whenever either is necessary.
"To have the leader qualities that he has at the age of 25 is pretty incredible. So many of us gravitate toward him and his attitude, and the young guys follow his lead," Altuve said.
On a team that believes it should win its second World Series title in three years, Bregman is part of the glue holding that shared ambition together. This is what makes him so valuable to Astros, and what could make him the most valuable player in the league in 2019.