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Coach in the shadows: Columbus plays big role in Bregman’s success

Jason Columbus works with Grant Smith at the Albuquerque Baseball Academy on Wednesday. Columbus, an Alamogordo native, is a hitting coach for local MLB stars Alex Bregman and Mitch Garver. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The hits, walks and home runs just keep accumulating for Alex Bregman and Mitch Garver this summer.

No one enjoys them more than Jason Columbus.

Bregman and Garver, two Albuquerque natives, are having monster offensive seasons for Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins, respectively. Going into Saturday’s games, Bregman led the American League West-leading Astros with 29 home runs, 90 walks and ranked second on the team with 74 RBIs. Garver had racked up 23 homers, 25 walks and 50 RBIs in a platoon role for the AL Central-leading Twins.

Columbus has played a part in their success. The 39-year-old Alamogordo native works with Bregman and Garver as a personal hitting coach, though Columbus doesn’t mind if his contributions fly under the baseball radar.

“I pretty much stay behind the scenes,” Columbus said. “If things are going good I don’t take credit, if they’re going bad I take the blame. That’s kind of the way it works with this job and that’s fine with me.”

Columbus’ No. 1 priority is Bregman. The two-time American League All-Star has been working with Columbus for more than 10 years and now employs him as a full-time coach.

Columbus attends every Astros home game and will relocate his family from Albuquerque to Houston later this month. The move is not entirely business-driven. Columbus’ primary employer, Bregman, is also his best friend.

“I want to spend more time at home and less time traveling,” Columbus said, “and I want my kids to be able to watch Alex play. He’s their godfather.”

Unexpected turn

Columbus is quick to acknowledge that landing a job as a profesional hitting coach was never something he envisioned. He grew up dreaming of playing pro baseball and eventually transitioning to college coaching.

Both dreams eventually came true but not at all as Columbus had imagined. His baseball playing career went from Alamogordo High School through New Mexico Junior College, where Columbus spent two seasons (2000-01) playing for then-Thunderbirds coach Ray Birmingham.

“Jason was a hard-nosed player,” Birmingham said. “He was part of the 2001 team that hit .438 as a team (Columbus hit .453) and set a national record. He led the country with 21 homers that season, too. He could always hit.”

Columbus moved on to play one season at LSU and was a late (49th round) draft pick of the San Francisco Giants organization in 2002. He spent four seasons in the minor leagues but was plagued by injuries and decided to call it a career after the 2005 campaign.

From there Columbus moved to Maryland where he coached baseball at Montgomery College. That career was short-lived.

“I hated the cold in Maryland,” he said. “The more I thought about going back to New Mexico and finishing my degree at UNM, it started sounding good.”

Strong impression

Returning to New Mexico led Columbus to find a job as an instructor at Albuquerque Baseball Academy. That’s where he was in 2008 when a youthful Alex Bregman made a strong first impression.

“He came to ABA to get a lesson,” Columbus recalled. “Here’s this skinny 14-year-old and he tells me, ‘I need to learn how to hit a sidearm pitcher by Friday.’ That was a first for me but he was serious. He listened and worked until he had it down.”

Columbus began to learn more about Bregman and quickly saw something special in him.

“People said, ‘Alex is quick but he’s undersized and blah blah blah,'” Columbus said. “When I watched him hit I thought, ‘Wow! That kid’s got lightning in his hands and knows what he’s doing. He’s super talented.'”

The two continued to work together over the years while Bregman advanced through Albuquerque Academy and three seasons of collegiate ball at LSU. The Houston Astros selected Bregman with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2015 draft and within a year he offered his friend and longtime hitting coach full-time work.

“Alex went pro and I went with him,” Columbus said. “I always thought I’d be a college coach but this is not a bad gig. Alex and I just click.”

Doing damage

Without getting overly technical, Columbus espouses a hitting philosophy that has little to with batting averages and much to do with production.

“It’s not about hitting .300 any more,” Columbus said. “For most guys that’s really hard to do. The ticket to sticking around is to do damage at the plate. OPS is what it’s all about now.”

OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, combines a player’s ability to get on base and his ability to hit for power. Players with high OPS numbers tend to avoid swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, are willing to take walks, and look to drive the ball for extra-base hits when they do swing.

The approach has worked for Bregman, who does not rank among the AL leaders in batting average this season but has been one of the league’s most productive hitters. Garver worked with Columbus during the most recent offseason to develop a similar approach. He hit eight home runs in 2018, his first full season in the majors.

“I wanted to up my power numbers and not spray the ball around as much,” Garver told the Journal earlier this season. “Home runs are the most efficient way to score. That’s the way baseball is going and that’s where the contracts are.”

Bregman and Garver, who played together at ABA as teens, have little in common in terms of body type but Columbus says their hitting approaches are similar.

“Mitch is bigger but he’s super athletic,” Columbus said, “so he can apply an approach that’s pretty close to what Alex does. I showed him some things to work on last winter and he put in a ton of time revamping his swing. Looking at the season he’s having, I’d say it’s working.”

Squaring it up

It’s not unusual for major league hitters to employ personal hitting coaches in this era, and Columbus has worked with several on occasion, including Rio Rancho native Blake Swihart of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Bregman’s Houston teammate Carlos Correa.

Columbus acknowledged that his job requires a certain amount of diplomacy in working with teams’ official hitting coaches.

“Definitely, I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” Columbus said. “I have great relationships with the guys in Houston. We communicate about things we want to try and it’s worked out really well.”

Bregman’s working arrangement with Columbus extends beyond baseball. Bregman launched an organization — AB for Autism — in early 2018 to help children with autism in honor of Columbus’ 6-year-old son Brady, who has autism. Both men have been heavily involved in the organization.

Still, helping Bregman and other clients square up baseballs remains job one for Columbus. He enjoys watching his charges succeed and believes Bregman’s best days could still be ahead.

“I still think about meeting him as that skinny kid,” Columbus said. “Now you wonder how many All-Star Games he’ll play in and if he’s got a chance to go to the Hall of Fame some day. It’s pretty incredible really.”

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