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For better or worse, Alex Bregman has been a different hitter in 2021

Mining through the complexities of the third baseman’s unusually hot start to the season.

Los Angeles Angels v Houston Astros Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Much has been atypical for Alex Bregman in 2021. A notoriously slow starter, the 2019 AL MVP runner-up has come out of the gates with purpose, slashing .316/.384/.478 through 151 plate appearances, including a May line of .339/.418/.475. Bregman has produced these numbers in fairly unconventional fashion.

In 2019, the LSU product’s ground ball rate was 31.7 percent. This year, it’s risen to 45 percent. Bregman’s consistently kept this percentage below 40 for the entirety of his career. His ability to lift the ball is a big reason why he’s been enormously successful at the plate. Now, despite this apparent swing alteration, he remains a highly effective hitter.

The potency of Bregman’s production isn’t in question, but what could be is its sustainability.

What most people will point to is his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which is .346. In a vaccum, that doesn’t seem terribly high, but it is when compared to Bregman’s career figure of .296. Concurrently, this sizable increase has come without a surge in strikeouts, which is typically responsible for a change of this magnitude.

BABIP certainly has its uses, but more so regarding pitchers, as it doesn’t account for home runs. Something that better pertains to hitters is Batting Average on Contact (BACON), a metric created many years ago by Colin Wyers, who is now a member of the Atlanta Braves’ front office.

Bregman’s career BACON is .339 and in 2019 it was .348. Thus far in 2021, it’s .376. While this discrepancy appears to be similar to that of his BABIP, it’s substantively different. Remember, BABIP doesn’t count home runs, and that’s the big separator here. Bregman hit 41 in 2019 and is currently on pace to hit around 20 in 2021.

And yet, there’s a 28-point jump in Bregman’s BACON (yes, I know how absurd this reads) from 2019 to 2021. Granted, Bregman’s xBACON is up by more than 30 points compared to 2019, but based on multiple data components, there is still reason to be somewhat concerned from an inflation standpoint.

These oddities could all be due to small sample size shenanigans, but the added emphasis on Bregman’s batting average is due to the significant drop in long balls.

What’s peculiar about this development is that it’s transpired despite a marked rise in barrel rate. In November, I wrote about how Bregman was unlikely to reach the 40-home run mark again — or even come close to it — due in part to a steadily below-average barrel rate. Well, now it’s actually decent, but there hasn’t been a positive effect on Bregman’s home run productivity.

Again, this could look different later in the summer, and MLB “de-juicing” the ball this year has resulted in a tangible effect on barrels.

In spite of a downgraded launch angle, it’s possible that the trade of power for batting average is a wise one for Bregman, considering how questionable the former’s viability is. At the same time, however, the need to hit for a much higher average than in the past — and thus reach base more often — will be amplified, so as to compensate for the drop-off in power.

Whatever the case may be, if the 2021 version of the Astros’ star third baseman is here to stay, it will be fascinating to see how his final numbers stack up against prior years.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant