From 2015-2017 Kris Bryant was objectively awesome – Rookie of the Year in 2015, NL MVP and Hank Aaron Award in 2016 and a couple of All-Star appearances for good measure. A model of consistency, he averaged 152 games played. His average production during that span, slightly skewed by that monstrous 2016 MVP season, was just as dependable – .288/.388/.527, 31 HR, 91 RBI, 106 R, 9 SB. On top of all of this, there were numbers to suggest that he was actually still improving as a hitter. His strikeout rate declined every year 30.6%, 22.0%, 19.2% while his wOBA increased .371, .396, .399. But, then 2018 and the now infamous shoulder injury occurred.
We don’t need to relive all of Bryant’s troubles last season, but we can touch on some of the low lights. From 2015-2017 Bryant has an average isolated power of .239, last season it dipped to .188, hitting just 13 long balls in the 102 games he played in (on pace for only 21 HR in 162 games). The aforementioned gains he made in strikeout rate regressed to 23.4% and at just .359 his wOBA was a career low.
Despite this sub-par season Bryant fans, like myself, believed that a bounce-back was coming. Hope springs eternal every April, right? Or maybe not. Bryant got off to a sluggish start in March and April – a .230 average just 3 HR and 13 RBI. The sky was falling and there was nothing anyone could possibly do. Why, oh why, was this happening to us poor fantasy managers. We’re good people, maybe a little strange, but on the whole not so bad. What sort of higher power could possibly let something like thi… wait, hold on. He hit 3 HR in a game the other night? He’s slashing .347/.467/.747 in May with 8 HR and 19 RBI, 22 R with 16 BB to 12 strikeouts? I knew he was back, never doubted it for a second.
While the emotional roller-coaster of rooting for your favorite players is part of the fun of playing fantasy baseball, the abrupt changes for Bryant are slightly more nausea inducing than most. So, should we stay on for another few laps around the track or hop off now?
Let’s start with a quick look at Bryant’s batted ball profile compared to his MVP season. He’s making hard contact at roughly the same rate this season, 39.4 percent, compared to 40.3 percent in 2016. But, his soft contact is down slightly – 15.5 percent in 2019 to 17.0 percent in 2016. Given the concerns about his shoulder it is worth paying closer attention to whether Bryant has been able to lift the ball. So far that answers appears to be a pretty firm yes, though not quite at 2016 levels. In 2016 his fly-ball and line-drive rates were 23.7 percent and 45.8 percent respectively. This season those numbers have dipped to 22.5 percent and 43.0 percent.
If a player consistently gets the ball in the air, as Bryant has been, and his HR totals are spiking, as Bryant’s have in the last month, we need to make sure its not just pure luck (a few lucky swings, getting to play the Orioles more than normal, a ball bouncing off Jose Canseco’s head etc.) . That does not appear to be the case here as Bryant’s HR/FB rate is 18.0 percent which is below his 18.8 percent in 2016 and not too much higher than his career average of 16.2 percent. His success also isn’t BABIP driven – his current .290 BABIP is much lower than his career mark of .341, so go ahead and believe in the .280 average.
If you’re still concerned about his shoulder I would like to invite you to take a look at his performance by zone this year versus 2016. One theory I have heard is that because of his bum shoulder he can’t catch up to high heat. With 8 of his 11 HR coming off of fastballs I would say that his bat-speed is probably just fine. Plus, Bryant has never been great at hitting balls up in the zone, and in particular balls in on the hands. We can see from his current expected batting average on such pitches that his results on those pitches is worse than in his MVP season, but if you look closely it’s not nearly the problem people have made it out to be.
Bryant’s lowest average exit velocities (within the strike zone) both this year and in 2016 are up and in, and down and away. His hard-hit rate in those zones further confirms that he has struggled with those particular pitches for quite some time. Given his long limbs and swing path it’s not surprising that pitchers are able to get him out with the textbook hard-in soft-away strategy. We shouldn’t be happy that he struggles with those pitches, but we can take comfort in knowing that it’s not an injury driven phenomenon.
As long as he is able to crush the ball when pitchers don’t get the ball to those zones, and so far there are many similarities between 2016 and 2019, we can expect something similar to the best version of Kris Bryant.