Dispensing early with what is likely the most important aspect of Kris Bryant’s production troubles so far this year: it isn’t the shoulder that largely wrecked his 2018 campaign.
Even without any information from the team, it felt like this was something different. When Bryant was struggling last year, it was just a total lack of power generation, even as much of the rest of his game seemed similar to what it usually was. Turned out, his lead shoulder was ailing, and it wreaked havoc on his natural high-finish swing.
This year, the problem isn’t really just about a lack of power – instead, it looks more like a timing and swing issue. Bryant is just off, missing pitches he usually crushes, fouling too many back, popping way too many up, and otherwise whiffing on breaking pitches. Could some of that be the residue of a year of swing problems last year? Him shaking all that off and getting back to what works?
Sure, maybe. But it just didn’t feel like an injury issue as we’ve watched his season play out so far, and sure enough, the Cubs are saying as much.
“He feels good health-wise,” Theo Epstein said on the McNeil & Parkins Show when asked about Bryant’s struggles. “I think he could feel better at the plate. He’s in a little bit of a rut now. But physically, he’s in good shape …. His shoulder’s fine.”
Taking that at face value for the moment, that’s … good news, right? You don’t want to see anyone struggle for any reason, but when it’s a small sample, and it’s a guy who has had peaks and valleys before, you’d much rather hear that it’s perhaps a natural valley rather than a multi-year lingering physical issue.
Coming into his off-day this weekend, Bryant was hitting just .231/.333/.365 (89 wRC+) through his first 60 plate appearances on the year. His power is definitely down (.135 ISO is extremely low), but it doesn’t seem to be the same kind of power drop-off last year. Instead, his HUGE groundball rate this year (51.4%), his super low soft contact rate (8.1%), and especially his super low contact rate in the zone (down nearly eight(!) percentage points from last year) all paint the picture of a guy who is simply off in his swing/timing.
Kris Bryant's contact rate in the zone is currently 69.1% (well below career rate: 77.9%). Has hit fastballs well so far (.303 AVG/.485 SLG), but has been hurt by breaking/offspeed stuff. Here's a look at his all-swings heatmaps from 2017 (first image) vs. '19 so far. pic.twitter.com/5rjkXVQZiQ
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) April 13, 2019
For what it’s worth, Sahadev Sharma’s dive into the numbers suggests the same issue: timing/mechanics are off. Good read here:
Kris Bryant is missing pitches in the zone like never before and he looks generally out of sync at the plate. A look at the numbers and mechanics behind KB's early struggles https://t.co/mSWeS6nprR
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) April 14, 2019
Sharma’s work seems to square with the idea that Bryant is lunging a bit at the plate, not staying as upright as he needs to in order to generate elevated hard contact. That’s not a health thing, that’s a combination of swing mechanics, timing, and also pitch-recognition.
(I doubt, by the way, that the glasses he’s been wearing are implicated here – either as a symptom or a cause – but since they look so different than shades he’s worn in the past, I understand that folks notice. Apparently it helps reduce the tearing in his eyes due to wind, but there has been no indication from anyone anywhere that there’s a vision-related concern. So, this is me mentioning it in a parenthetical so you don’t think I forgot about it or ignored it; I just don’t have any reason to suspect it’s a thing.)
The good news is that this kind of groundball rut is not a total anomaly for Bryant, even when he was healthy. The less good news is that it hasn’t happened over a 13-game sample like this too often in his career:
As you can see, Bryant never got this groundball-heavy in 2015 or 2016, but did when they shoulder was hurting last year, and did for a very long stretch in the middle of 2017 – a season he finished with a .295/.409/.537 line that more or less matched his 2016 MVP campaign.
That is to say, you could look at that chart and be terrified, or you could look at it and not worry at all. Me? I don’t really have a strong reaction either way, because 13 games after an offseason of recovery from a shoulder issue are just not enough to tell us much of anything when it comes to batted ball data. Talk to me when it’s more like 40 games, and we might just see the band narrow considerably when compared to 2017 and 2018: