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2021 player review: Alex Bregman

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Injuries led to inconsistent results for the Astros third baseman in 2021, but beneath the surface may lie some compelling data.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s been two years since Alex Bregman’s remarkable 2019. After finishing second in AL MVP voting to this generation’s best player, Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the Astros third sacker has since struggled to sustain the kind of numbers he produced in 2019 as well as 2018, when MVP voters placed him fifth.

Although some regression was likely unavoidable, a slew of injuries is ostensibly the driving force behind Bregman’s less than stellar numbers of the past two years.

A hamstring issue shortened his 2020, a season that was already reduced to just 60 games due to COVID, and that injury seemed to carry over into 2021, as a quad strain shelved the two-time All-Star for more than two months during the summer.

In addition to the lower half problems, a wrist injury popped up late in the season that purportedly hampered Bregman in the playoffs (.217/.304/.300). He underwent surgery in early November to address it and is expected to be ready for spring training, whenever that happens.

Despite the lingering injuries, the 27-year-old former No. 2 overall pick was able to log 400 plate appearances this year.

2021

Stat Slash line HR BB% K% wRC+ DRS bWAR fWAR
Stat Slash line HR BB% K% wRC+ DRS bWAR fWAR
Numbers .270/.355/.422 12 11 13.3 115 2 2.1 2

Taking everything into account, it’s fairly impressive how a “down year” still nets Bregman a .355 OBP, an outstanding strikeout rate and above-average marks from wRC+ and DRS. He remains a quality two-way player, but is still searching for his old superstar form.

Positive trends

As displayed in the table, Bregman’s exceptional plate discipline and contact skills remained intact in 2021. That alone is noteworthy because they’re perhaps the two facets of hitting most affected by injuries or inconsistent playing time. Both are especially vital for Bregman, as much of his success has been predicated on his ability to make contact and draw walks.

Mediocre exit velocities have been prevalent throughout his career but the high contact rate has acted as a significant amplifier, partially enabling Bregman to hit 71 home runs combined in 2018 and 2019.

In terms of overall batted-ball data, 2021 looks more reflective of the LSU product’s true abilities with the stick than 2020, a year that many consider to be a wash. A markedly higher Hard-hit rate (HH%) and Dynamic Hard-hit rate (DHH%) highlight the difference, as does an improved Barrel rate:

2019-2021

Year HH % DHH % Barrel %
Year HH % DHH % Barrel %
2019 38 3.6 4.8
2020 33.6 1.6 3.9
2021 38.1 5 6.4
via Baseball Savant and Pitch Leaderboard

The abysmal 2020 numbers stick out, but when comparing 2019 and 2021, the latter’s superiority is my main takeaway here.

From a defensive perspective, metrics such as DRS and Outs Above Average (OAA) viewed Bregman as average or slightly better at the hot corner in 2021. As always, analyzing defense from a data standpoint is an inexact science, to put it mildly, though assessing the quality of a fielder via the ‘eye test’ might be just as subjective conceptually. In this case, I think both are in alignment.

Negative trends

While several of Bregman’s stats are encouraging, there are two nuggets that could elicit concern: ground balls, and below-average output against fastballs.

A key statistical element of Bregman’s powerful 2018 and 2019 campaigns was a low ground ball rate. According to Baseball Savant, the New Mexico native had never finished a season with a percentage of at least 40 percent until this past one:

In essence, ground balls are bad and lifting the ball is good, especially for a hitter like Bregman who does not make a lot of hard contact. wOBA and Expected wOBA (xwOBA) illustrate the benefits of hitting the ball in the air:

2021 League Averages

Metric Ground balls Line drives Fly balls
Metric Ground balls Line drives Fly balls
wOBA .221 .650 .457
xwOBA .227 .650 .452
via Baseball Savant

There might be a negative connotation attached to launch angle for the old-school crowd, but this is fairly cut-and-dry. Bregman’s struggles with fastballs, however, may not be.

Specifically against four-seamers, Bregman was one of the game’s best in 2019. Among all hitters, Baseball Savant’s Run Value metric ranked him 16th, with a shiny rating of plus-19. In 2021, that rating cratered to minus-4. Only Martín Maldonado (minus-5) and Yuli Gurriel (minus-8) finished with lower marks among Astros regulars.

For what it’s worth, the discrepancy between Bregman’s wOBA (.325) and xwOBA (.383) versus four-seamers was the 12th-largest in baseball (min. 100 plate appearances). This could be indicative of future performance if xwOBA were a predictive metric, but it was designed to be descriptive, and it tends to function that way with hitters.

The potentially anomalous fastball woes notwithstanding, it’s possible that the lack of swing loft was merely a symptom of Bregman’s injuries. Playing through a wrist injury and/or missing an extended period of time will undoubtedly have a negative effect on a hitter’s swing.

Final thought

With Carlos Correa’s departure in free agency seemingly all but guaranteed, it’s important for the Astros that his former neighbor on the left side rediscover his All-Star form in 2022. Durability concerns may complicate the notion of such a resurgence, but multiple data components from 2021 show that beneath the surface may lie the Bregman of old.