Strike First, Strike Hard, Show No Mercy: Why Kris Bryant May Need to Re-Think His Approach and Re-Write His Book

It was only yesterday that I equated the Cardinals and their fans to members of the infamous Cobra Kai crew, but now I’m starting to think Kris Bryant might need to take a few pointers from sensei John Kreese. His motto of “Strike first, strike hard, show no mercy” is one Bryant would do well to adopt given the way he’s being pitched.

But Evan, his 16 walks are tied with Rizzo for the team lead and he’s done that in 27 fewer at-bats than his fellow corner man. And he’s getting on base at a .442 clip, nearly 160 points higher than his batting average. There’s nothing wrong with his approach and he’s due for a breakout any game now.

I’ll grant that Bryant’s patience rivals that of a monk and that his plate discipline (28.1% O-Swing) is great for a guy who’s been known to strike out a lot. On the other hand, those factors may be masking the fact that he’s not as comfortable as we’d all like to believe. I’m not alone in thinking this either, as evidenced by the conversation below.

There’s much more to the thread, of course, but I think you get the gist. What MLB Radio Network’s Mike Ferrin in suggesting is that Bryant is sitting on the best pitches and then finding himself in a 2-strike situation in which he’s forced to take on more of a defensive approach.

Now, I grant that this might seem counter-intuitive at first blush, particularly to those of you who have read my recent post on how Bryant is being pitched. Even if you haven’t read it — and you really should because it’s awesome — you may know that Bryant sees a strike on only 40.38% of the pitches he sees, 4th-fewest in the majors among players with 300 or more pitches seen.

That percentage puts him behind only Evan Gattis (40.20%), Eric Hosmer (39.03), and [drumroll]…Anthony Rizzo (36.57%). While the first two on the list have a tendency to take a few more hacks at balls (Hosmer 37% O-Swing, Gattis 45%), Rizzo is swinging at a career-low number of bad pitches (20.9% vs. 32.1%).

Hosmer is off to a great start but got an early reputation as a guy who’s not going to take a lot of walks and Gattis is a free swinger who’s definitely not looking to take a free pass. While fear plays a role, pitchers know they don’t necessarily need to stay in the zone to get these guys out. But back to Bryant.

We saw earlier that only roughly 40% of the 317 pitches he’s seen have been strikes. But that only tells part of the story, as it’s becoming more clear with each passing game that pitchers are throwing Bryant early strikes. But is that just our perception or is there some truth behind it?

Well, of those 128 pitches Bryant has seen in the zone, 49 of them have been a first offering. That’s 40% of his total and tells us that pitchers really are going after him early. If, for instance, strikes were thrown to him in equal proportion over his 4.38 pitches seen per plate appearance, the first-strike total would be just shy of 23.

It would have been easy to simply review Bryant’s F-Strike% (% of first-pitch strikes see), but that would be a little too easy and wouldn’t tell the whole story. After all, his 63.6% total is only slightly higher than the league average of 60.5%. The concern here is how many more strikes Bryant is seeing early in the count, relatively speaking.

For the sake of an easy comparison, I’m going to look at Anthony Rizzo again. This is, after all, a Cubs blog, and he’s also somewhat close to Bryant when it comes to the amount of strikes and total pitches (Rizzo – 4.21) seen. Everything looks pretty similar between the two so far, right? Well, until we look at F-Strike%.

Rizzo sees a first-pitch strike only 37.5% of the time, roughly even with his overall percentage of strikes seen and the lowest in baseball by a very wide margin. Only 8 other players can boast a number under 50% and the next-closest to Rizzo is Brett Gardner at 44.3%. This speaks to Rizzo’s recognition and pitchers’ fear that he’s willing and able to jump all over an early strike.

Bryant, on the other hand, appears either unwilling or unable to cut it loose early. You could say that Bryant’s just waiting for “his pitch,” that his patience is a sign of an approach that is beyond his years, but part of a great approach is adapting to what pitchers are giving you.

And as Ferrin asserted above, Bryant may be putting himself in too many positions in which he’s forced to battle late in the count. After all, just because a pitch is a strike doesn’t mean it’s a great ball to hit. Also, once you get past that first pitch, the percentage of strikes drops way off.

While Bryant only sees a strike 40% of the time on the whole, that number drops to 33% on pitches two and beyond. Major league pitchers are a very informed bunch and they’ve got a book on Bryant, the very first chapter of which is telling them to throw strikes early and then nibble, bust him inside to handcuff his power.

I had wondered whether that book was already published prior to Bryant’s call-up or whether it was still in the process of being edited, and it appears as though it’s a mix of both. Perhaps the first edition was already out and now it’s in its second printing. Over his first 38 PA’s Bryant saw 25 first-pitch strikes (65.8%), and he’s seen 24 good pitches over the most recent 39 PA’s (61.6%).

That’s a pretty negligible difference, but my theory gains a little more credence when you consider that Bryant’s F-Strike% is at a whopping 85.9% over his last 14 PA’s (12/14 pitches seen). Is it dangerous to draw conclusions from such small sample sizes? Sure, but when the metrics line up pretty much exactly with what our eyes and intuition are telling us, it’s hard not to.

Kris Bryant is doing very well in this early stage of his baseball career and all indications are that he has all the mental and physical tools to be a very, very good player for a long time. But if he wants to elevate his game to the next level, he’s going to need to read that book that all the pitchers seem to be passing around like soccer moms with 50 Shades of Grey.

If he can make a few creative edits, particularly by completely re-writing the prologue (maybe with Martin Kove serving as his editor), I have no doubt he’d have a best seller.


Stats via Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs.


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