Almost exactly one month ago today, Kris Bryant went 2-3 against the Chicago White Sox with a single, a homer, and two walks, raising his overall slash line to .302/.434/.612 for the season.
At the time, that level of production wasn’t just very good, it was the best in the National League:
And just like that, #Cubs Kris Bryant is officially the best hitter in the National League.
1. Kris Bryant: 182 wRC+
2. Tommy Pham: 181 wRC+
3. Nick Markakis: 167 wRC+
4. Odubel Herrera: 167 wRC+
5. A.J. Pollock: 166 wRC+
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) May 11, 2018
What was more impressive than the killer slash line, however, was what lied beneath it. We were all already used to seeing Bryant use the offseason to upgrade himself with almost unimaginable ease – like some sort of evil futuristic, self-preserving baseball cyborg – but I don’t think anyone expected him to bring his power game to a new level (.310 ISO, .612 SLG) while cutting down on his strikeout rate (15.9% on May 11) and improving his walk rate (13.1%). That’s just too many improvements all at once, even for someone as talented as Bryant. But he did it. Through nearly 150 plate appearances to start the season, Bryant was the absolute best version of himself, and it was very fun to watch.
And then the fun slowed.
The very next day, Bryant went 0-3 at the plate, and things haven’t quite been the same ever since. Indeed, in the 129 plate appearances that followed, Bryant has slashed just .261/.341/.348, which is solidly below average (88 wRC+). Worse, the walk rate, while still good, has been reduced down to 10.1% and his strikeout rate ballooned up to 23.3%. If his power numbers were sitting where they normally reside, that strikeout rate would be just fine, but after growing accustomed to the new strikeout-allergic Bryant 2.0, the regression was a bit of a let down.
And things have only gotten worse since then.
Despite a hidden seven-game hit streak from May 31- June 8, Bryant has now gone hitless in his last 15 at-bats with a strikeout rate approaching 28%. It’s also been a month since he last homered, and week since his last extra-base hit. Even some of his batted ball stats since that May 12th slump-starting game have been ugly:
Soft-hit rate: 23.5%
Hard-hit rate: 25.9%
Infield Fly Ball rate: 13.6%
And sure, you might think you love his 51.8% fly ball rate (#flyballrevolution) and tiny 25.9% ground ball rate, but when you’re only making hard contact 25.9% of the time, that’s not really that helpful. In fact, a fly ball/hard-hit combo like that is going to lead to almost no power (.087 ISO) and eventually to a low batting average, thanks to a low BABIP – grounders, even weak ones, have a higher chance of falling in for a hit than weakly struck fly balls. It’s just a matter of time.
Your eyes, confirm this, I’m sure – you’ve seen Bryant hitting a whole lot of lazy fly balls of medium depth to the outfield lately. He’s just getting under the ball, missing his pitches.
But while it may be difficult for Cubs fans to come to terms with this very real Kris Bryant slump we’re witnessing, we may as well. Even Bryant stresses the importance of self-awareness: “It’s all about perspective …. It’s OK to slump as hitters,” Bryant said, per NBC Sports Chicago. “It’s gonna happen. This has been 16 at-bats. Sure, before that, I wasn’t feeling great, either. But I mean, I was hitting .300. If I’m complaining about that, then I got big problems.
“It’s all about being patient,” he continued. “That’s who I am and the last 3-4 games haven’t been great, but I think there’s a lot of people who would want to be in my shoes. Sometimes, it’s all about perspective and how you look at things.”
Bryant offered up many other familiar lines about baseball being a game, learning something about yourself during a slump, etc., etc., but nothing he said was particularly unlike him. That is, with one exception.
The usually tame, reserved, quiet Bryant might know what to say to reporters and how to act in front of a camera, but he admits that behind the scenes, he gets frustrated. And he expresses that frustration in ways we don’t usually see from him: “Sure, I have my tempter tantrums. I go in [the clubhouse] and break a bat or whatever, but I try to do it where no one sees me, but sometimes that’s a good thing, too.”
I’m not entirely sure why I feel this way, but I’m happy to hear Bryant gets that stuff out (even as I cringe imagining a bat not breaking properly over his knee, or a shard flying up from wherever he slams the bat, and causing an injury). While his nearly unparalleled poise at the plate is admirable, I’m a big fan of not keeping things too far down beneath the surface. So, if Bryant is really feeling calm after another strikeout or 0-4 performance, that’s fine, but if he feels like he wants to scream and break a bat, I say do that, too. I trust Bryant to be a guy who can get it back under control for his next plate appearance.
So will Bryant come out of it?
Uhm, yes. I don’t need advanced stats, scouting reports, or managerial explanations to understand that Kris Bryant is one of the game’s *most elite* hitters and neither do you. I’ll take it further than that. I don’t just expect Bryant’s game to even out over the course of the season, I expect him to be something closer to the guy he was at the beginning of the year. He’s shown he can do that over an extended period of time with the peripherals to support, and I believe that he will.
Underscoring my confidence: With all due respect to Anthony Rizzo, I was less confident that he’d be as good as has been after his ice-cold start to the season than I am with Bryant right now … and I was completely confident in Rizzo. Give it time, be patient, but don’t worry.
Bryant is gonna be Bryant, and that means one of the best hitters in baseball.
It’s no coincidence that he’s now getting a day off today, plus the off-day tomorrow, to regroup a bit before the weekend series in St. Louis. Would anyone be the least bit surprised if he went off?
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.