After losing his trademark swing loft in 2021, the 2019 AL MVP runner-up is lifting the ball more than ever in 2022. But it could be to his disadvantage.
The 2019 version of Alex Bregman was an absolute dynamo offensively. It was a Mike Trout-like season for the Astros third baseman, as he slugged 41 home runs, registered a .423 OBP and drew 121 walks while striking out just 83 times. Only Trout himself had a better wRC+ in the American League that year.
The 28-year-old Bregman is now roughly three years removed from his peak form and has been trying to rediscover it ever since. Though he remains an effective hitter who is still one of the tougher outs in baseball — he has a 132 wRC+, 6 home runs and 26 walks against 25 punchouts this season — his slash line of .229/.349/.424 through 42 games played is somewhat underwhelming.
Nagging injuries have played a large part in thwarting Bregman’s attempts to replicate his numbers from 2019, but in 2022 — a year where he has ostensibly been healthy — there’s a greater obstacle in the way:
Major League Baseball has changed the ball — essentially deadening it — and some of the results have been comical. Fewer fly balls are clearing fences, as seemingly a great number of them have died at the warning track. The sentiment is reflected by league-wide batted-ball data, particularly in one area:
Barrels are what most hitters strive to produce. They often result in extra bases or in a trot around the infield. But the deadened ball has made a tangible impact on them in 2022, given the data in the table above.
When it comes to Bregman, the complete lack of “juice” in the ball is especially relevant.
In hindsight, it’s fair to say that much of his power output in 2019 was hinged on the ball being effectively juiced. That season, the home run-to-barrel ratio was 59.4 percent, the second-highest in the Statcast era (2015-present). Things have changed since:
Barrels — and by extension, fly balls — are less valuable now. It’s a development that greatly affects Bregman — of his 41 home runs in 2019, 22 were not barreled, the high mark in the big leagues that year.
According to Baseball Savant, through 175 plate appearances in 2022, the former No. 2 overall pick has an 8.2 percent Barrel rate, which would be highest it’s ever been in a single season. While appearing to be a positive trend on the surface, the cost might outweigh the reward in Bregman’s case.
To put it in layman’s terms, hitting a ton of fly balls isn’t necessarily worth it this year if there isn’t a high-quality Barrel rate generated in the process. Bregman’s is only slightly above-average (league average = 7.8 percent).
Presumably in an effort to rectify last year’s career-high ground ball rate, Bregman is lifting the ball more than he ever has and is also pulling the ball at a career-high clip. The extent to which he’s doing the former could be characterized as an overcorrection. It would be a viable, if not optimal blueprint in past years, but not this year. Not with the physical makeup of the ball.
Bregman has markedly reduced his ground ball rate from 2021, but one key casualty in adding substantial swing loft has been a decrease in line drives. In fact, Bregman’s current line-drive rate would be the lowest in his career. It’s likely had a negative effect on his Sweet Spot percentage, which is also at a low point.
In short, hitting more line drives would be beneficial:
Getting back to his line-drive roots may be the adjustment that elevates Bregman’s production to levels he’s failed to reach in recent years.
To be fair, it’s not something that is sorely needed. The unremarkable slash line notwithstanding, a 132 wRC+ is quite good. Bregman’s current pace has him on track to surpass his performances in 2021 and 2020. But it’s no secret that the LSU product yearns to be an MVP-caliber player again.
In order to regain that elite form, a swing change of sorts might be necessary. Fly-ball centric approaches just aren’t paying the dividends that they used to.