I’ll be up front about this – I’ve been a pretty big Kris Bryant hater since his debut. No, I don’t think he’s ready to flame out and be out of the majors in a couple of seasons, but yes I have (well, had) a lot of concerns about his long-term success. I thought that his freshman campaign looked more like his ceiling than just the beginning, and oh boy do I look dumb for thinking that now. He’s coming off a game where he’s the first person in MLB history to hit three homers and two doubles. He’s increased his power rates; the isolated slugging mark jumped from .213 to .289, all while keeping his average almost the exact same.
Looking back, it’s easy to see where concern came from. He did have bad numbers on strike zone contact and whiff rates, lucky average on balls in play, and his historic comparisons almost all burned down to average (or worse) players before they hit their thirties. So is his hot first half enough to warrant a change of opinion?
First off, let’s look at the plate discipline numbers where most of the questions came from. He’s increased his strike zone contact from 75,8% to 81.2%, and while he has cut down on the number of balls he chases outside the zone, he increased his O-Contact% from 49.2% to 53.1%. Plus, his whiff rates have been cut down from 16.5% to 13.6%, while still high, a much more manageable number to work with (especially considering a power hitter’s profile).
Because of this, he’s been able to take his sky-high strikeout rate of 30.6% down to almost league average 22.6%. This has the added benefit of normalizing his BABIP down to .304, a highly sustainable rate, without changing his fly ball heavy batted ball profile, an absolute must for a power hitter.
And about those projections? Yeah, they’re buying into him now as well. Kris Bryant is legit.
But it’s not like some magic switch has been flipped. Bryant has had to work hard on his mechanics and the mental aspect as well to get to where he is today, with such consistent success. Read what Joe Maddon had to say about his swing after the 2015 season:
“What he had been doing before was not going to work (long-term),” manager Joe Maddon said. “I’m not one of those guys (who says): ‘Hey, you can’t hit like that in the big leagues.’ I always used to hate hearing that from coaches. (But) the fact was that he had such an abrupt uppercut or chicken wing – whatever you want to call it – easily exposed by good pitching. Easily. And it had to go away.
“(He) worked through it. He knew how he was getting beat up at the plate. He knew what he couldn’t get to that he was able to get to before. He’s only 20-something years old, (but) he’s quick (and thinking): ‘I’m seeing the ball good. I just can’t get to it. What do I have to do to get to those pitches?’ Now he is.”
That’s certainly a lot to read, but in a nutshell both the organization and Bryant himself knew that the approach he had as a rookie had a limited shelf life, one that had perhaps already expired. Essentially, he wasn’t able to keep his bat on a flat enough plane throughout the “hitting zone” as it’s called (the part of the swing where contact can get made) and further limited himself from just putting balls in play. This is shown in the numbers mentioned above, about his lack of contact on pitches in the zone, pitches hitters like him need to be hitting.
A move to this type of swing is not always easy to do, and it helps Bryant because of his big frame and wide base while at the plate. He’s so strong and effective at using his lower half to create power as well as his core to create torque, that simply making contact is often enough to do damage. While his swing might be technically safer in terms of contact, what it does is allows him to tap into his elite power frequently.
Let’s look at how his new approach is affecting his success in different areas of the zones:
While he may have lost a little bit of power towards the outer third, he more than makes up for it by the increase in power on the inner third and inside the strike zone. But with adjustments we’ve already seen, it wouldn’t be surprising for Bryant to work with his hitting coaches to be able to shoot these outside pitches to the opposite field and still manage plenty of damage there, making him a threat in all parts of the zone.
Kris Bryant’s 2015 was exceptional, but the numbers looked hollow because of concerns over his contact abilities. However, thanks to hard work and mechanical adjustments, he’s fixed these issues to not only keep up his great rookie numbers, but to improve on them as well. He’s a legitimate cornerstone type offensive talent and should be treated as such in every league.
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