In 2015, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant slashed an incredible .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs en route to the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Despite a fantastic opening season that was ultimately worth 6.5 WAR – tenth most by a position player all season – there was still room for improvement.
Although he walked at an excellent rate (11.8%) – eighteenth best by any qualified position player – Bryant was striking out an inordinate amount of times (30.6%) – third worst from any qualified position player.
In that way, Bryant was an extremely unique player. Most guys that strike out that often aren’t able to realize their full potential or have the success that Bryant had. But like I said, there was room for improvement and Bryant set out to do so over the offseason. Priority number one was cutting down on the whiffs.
Earlier this week, Luis took a fascinating dive into the early returns on Bryant’s 2016 season, and the results were shockingly encouraging (although, maybe they shouldn’t have been so shocking, we know how good he has always been). Aside from Bryant’s strikeout rate being 8.6 percentage points lower than it was in 2015, Luis discovered that Bryant was swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, making better contact with pitches in the zone, swinging through the ball less often, and ultimately making more contact, overall. If you’re looking for a smile, that piece is definitely worth your time.
But what gives? Did Bryant just will himself into better bat-to-ball skills? Nah. It was actually a dedicated change in approach he began working on in the offseason. Specifically, Bryant hoped to level out his swing a bit in order to make better, more consistent contact (even if it was at the expense of those towering fly ball home runs).
At FanGraphs, August Fagerstrom noticed the change in his swing plane and wrote a decidedly awesome article about the specifics. In fact, his thoughts pair quite well with Luis’ earlier analysis on Bryant’s early season results, put some more visuals to the numbers (and adding some numbers, too).
I don’t want to spoil the article too much, so I’ll just share some interesting bits, along with some thoughts of my own, and send you on your way.
First and perhaps most importantly, the change in his swing plane was, in fact, a dedicated change in approach that Bryant had planned on correcting over the offseason. In fact, in 2015, Bryant had one of the highest average launch angles of any qualified player, so it’s understandable that he would pursue a change. Of course, the goal wasn’t to get Bryant to hit the ball on the ground – with his power, hitting it in the air is still the goal – instead, it was just to bring his average launch angle down to the “sweet spot” (25-30 degrees). That sweet spot happens to be where a vast majority of all home runs are hit, too.
And the plan, so far, has worked fantastically (for videos/GIFs of the difference between Bryant’s swing in 2015 and 2016, check out Fagerstrom’s article here). In 2016, Bryant’s contact rate is way up (as Luis pointed out), and his has been the fifth highest increase in contact rate of any player. In addition, Bryant’s line drive rate is up in 2016, sitting among the top 20 line drive rates in the league.
And although Bryant’s slash line is up across the board, that’s not the most important result. Instead, the most important result of this new approach at the plate is what it has done for Bryant’s “floor.” Bryant has legitimately found a way to maintain (and even slightly improve) upon his production in 2015, while striking out way, way, way less.
In many ways, we would have been thrilled if he had cut down on the strikeouts at the expense of some production, because it would have made him slightly more consistent, and less dependent on fortuitously outperforming what we typically know to be true about baseball (namely, if you strike out 30% of the time, you might not realize your full potential).
So for much more on Bryant’s swing changes and the results that have occurred thereafter, check out August Fagerstrom’s piece at FanGraphs and Luis Medina’s piece here at Bleacher Nation. It’s hard to believe that this guy could get better, but we may be seeing it right before our eyes.