It Has Been a Year of Quiet Redemption for Alex Bregman
So far, the 2020s have been a trying decade for Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.
Bregman was arguably the best player that the hot corner had to offer going into the COVID-shortened season. However, between the pandemic, a regime change in Houston, and injury troubles, he hasn’t been the same since then. The version of himself that was the runner-up for AL MVP in 2019 has not been seen in years. The Astros have been no strangers to adversity as of late, and whether it was deserved or not, he has dealt with a significant amount of it. Despite it all, the 2022 season can be considered a victory so far for Bregman, in more ways than one.
Bregman showed he was an above-average Major League hitter at the age of 22 when he was first called up, and he didn’t look back for a while. He peaked in 2018 and 2019 when he put up back-to-back years of 8.1 WAR according to Fangraphs. He was the class of the game in terms of third basemen in those two unreal seasons, leading in WAR, walk rate (15%), isolated power (.270), OBP (.409), and most impressively, wRC+ (162). To be 62% more productive than the league-average hitter over 2 seasons is not only remarkable, it’s nearly the best that anyone could ask for. For those two seasons, he was in the same tier of performance as Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. At age 25, it looked like Bregman was building the foundation of a hall-of-fame career.
In 2020, things went awry. He quickly became one of the most hated faces of the team’s cheating scandal after delivering an apology during Spring Training that many opposing fans took as half-hearted. His head was thrown at multiple times by Joe Kelly, who tried to exact his form of payback for the sign-stealing, and he was strongly disliked anywhere outside of Houston. What seemed inevitable following the scandal happened: he and the Astros underperformed, and they had a losing record in the 2020 season. The expanded playoff format allowed them to push the ALCS to 7 games, but they lost to Tampa Bay, still with everything to prove.
2021 was the first full season since the scandal, and no matter how hard he tried, Bregman was unable to be his best self. A quadriceps injury kept him out for nearly half the year, and when he was healthy, he put up his lowest wRC+ (115) since his rookie season – not bad at all, but a far cry from the standard he had set in prior years. It all culminated in a disappointing postseason in which he managed an OPS of just .604, and drew criticism for not delivering in the clutch when his team needed it. The narratives started to prevail: the after-effects of the cheating scandal had permanent effects on him, he couldn’t rebound from injury very well, and that he was not able to hit the way he used to when A.J. Hinch still managed the team.
This season, while he certainly has not been an MVP candidate like he has shown he can be, his compass is finally pointing in the right direction again. After all, he’s still just 28, so any regression in his performance could never have been caused by natural aging effects. Bregman has a wRC+ of 130, his highest since 2019. In 11 fewer games played, he has already passed his WAR total from last year, currently sitting at 2.5, which also puts him on pace for his highest since 2019. He’s walking more than he’s striking out again, something he had not yet done since Dusty Baker became the team’s manager. He may never be as good as he was 3 seasons ago, so people won’t put as much stock into this, but Bregman is playing his best baseball since then.
What sticks out the most is how this compares to other third basemen around the league. That 2.5 WAR places 3rd among AL third basemen behind only Rafael Devers and Jose Ramirez (4th if you count DJ LeMahieu, who has played multiple infield positions regularly) – which is on the fringe of all-star territory. His 130 wRC+ places 4th in the group as well. It is quite refreshing for those within the Astros organization to see that Alex Bregman is back to being a top-tier third baseman again.
Many would fairly argue that he deserved what he’s gone through, but nevertheless, it has been a much tougher road in recent years for Alex Bregman than at the start of his career. From being hated by opposing fans to randomly regressing to be above average instead of being a superstar to injury troubles, it hasn’t been easy for him to reconstruct a name for himself league-wide. However, those within the Astros fanbase are proud of him, and for good reason. He’s finally trending upward on the field, and cementing himself as a crowd favorite for his generosity off the field. This re-emergence only spells more trouble for the rest of the American League.