Let me go ahead and get this out of the way early: I’m not insinuating that Bryant is not a great player and that he’s just going to be a flash in the pan. His Rookie of the Year campaign was the product of a great deal of talent and hard work and he was more than deserving of that unanimous award. However, that big debut was also the product of a great deal of luck, some of which may very well fall by the wayside in 2016 and beyond. So in order to continue to produce at a high level, Bryant is going to have to adjust for what is likely to be some serious regression.
My primary focus for this piece will be Bryant’s BABIP, which was an absurdly high .378 last season. But before I dive into all that, I’d like to provide a little primer on this metric in order that everyone is on the same page as we move forward. Many of you are likely familiar with BABIP already, but as this misguided article proves, there are still plenty of misconceptions out there. Batting average on balls in play is not, as the author posits, a stat to be used in place of traditional batting average. Rather, it’s a general measure of how lucky (or unlucky) a hitter has been.
If we go with the accepted league-average BABIP of .300, we can understand that a batter can expect to see 3 of every 10 balls he puts in play (that means strikeouts and home runs are eliminated from the equation) to land for hits. A batter whose BABIP falls below may simply be experiencing a run of bad luck, perhaps because he’s hitting at ’em balls or seeing a very effective shift employed against him. Likewise, a batter with a BABIP significantly higher than .300 might have benefited from more than his fair share of duck-snorts, Texas-leagers, and seeing-eye singles.
Then again, simply setting the average and assuming that everything falling above and below it is due for regression is fallacy. It’s no secret that a player who hits the ball harder and who runs faster is going to create a bit of his own luck. Harder-hit balls and line drives are more likely to find holes and a guy who can bust it down the line will earn more infield hits. At the same time, a guy who beats the ball into the ground with soft-to-medium contact is less likely to get the benefit of luck. Make sense?
Now that we’ve established at least a rudimentary understanding of the metric in question, let’s get back to the lecture at hand. Kris Bryant’s BABIP was 5th in MLB last year and was 54 points higher than his next-highest qualified teammate (Addison Russell – .324). For what it’s worth, Jorge Soler posted a .361, buoyed by an average exit velocity of 92.37 mph that was 35th in baseball. Kyle Schwarber, on the other hand, had a .293 BABIP despite hammering the ball at an average of 93.4 mph, 13th in baseball. Kris Bryant’s batted balls averaged 89.33 mph (194th).
Already, we’re starting to gather a bit of evidence to suggest that the .378 figure is unsustainable, but maybe we should look at what Bryant has done throughout his professional career.
We can immediately throw out the .167 that came from a mere 7 plate appearances in Boise, but a run through the rest of the numbers shows that Bryant has always put up a BABIP that is significantly higher than average. On the other hand, we’re talking about some man-among-boys situations at all but the highest levels of the minors. This is Benny Rodriguez hitting off of Scott Smalls, in other words. But even the AAA numbers are inflated, so maybe there’s something to this high BABIP.
Still, using what a hitter did in the minors to project his performance in The Show is just asking for trouble. As such, we need to compare that .378 from last season against other big leaguers. In looking at historical BABIP numbers, you’ll quickly find that the group of hitters who were able to sustain .350 or higher is pretty elite. If we dial things all the way back to 1900, only 20 men have met or exceeded a career BABIP of .350. Of note here is that none of the men on that list hit more than 301 homers (Rogers Hornsby).
In fact, Migueal Cabrera’s 408 HR’s (.348 BABIP) reign supreme among the top 53 all-time BABIP leaders. The guy at 54: Babe Ruth (.340 BABIP). I guess what I’m trying to say is that this list isn’t necessarily a slugger’s haven (again, home runs don’t count). I’ve got a more contemporary set of comps coming up, but I first wanted to look at Bryant’s numbers relative to some of the old-school players near the top of the heap.
Since more advanced contact numbers are not available for the guys from previous eras, I just went with strikeouts and on-base percentage here. As you can see, Bryant stacks up somewhat admirably in the former category. His K%, though, is nearly twice that of the next-worst player on the list. This is another red flag, as it greatly impacts the IP portion of the stat in question. More on that after we review the Cub against his modern-day peers.
Kris Bryant compares very favorably against these other names from around the league today (yes, I know Jeter retired) when it comes to BABIP, but things get pretty scary when we get into the other stats. Not only is his K% significantly higher than the others listed, but his contact numbers are far lower and his swinging-strike percentage is very elevated. But that’s just who he is, right? I mean, it worked out fine in 2015.
Sure, but here’s the rub: Bryant is going to have to maintain that extraordinarily high BABIP in order to make up for the anemic figures we see in the remaining columns above. We’re talking about what he does with the balls he puts in play, but the real problem here is that he’s not putting enough of them in play. Should he experience a run of bad luck, he’s going to be hard-pressed to hit his way out of it when he’s making so little contact.
So, Evan, are you saying that Kris Bryant is going to fall on his face this season? Well, no, not really. I’m saying that he must improve his plate approach and his contact rates in order to make up for what will likely be a correction to an unsustainable BABIP. If he falls back to more mortal levels and isn’t benefiting from Lady Luck as often, things could get ugly.
Ah, but there is hope. A lot of it, actually. While the following isn’t meant as a direct comparison, Anthony Rizzo is a player who has significantly improved his hitting since he first came into the league.
You can easily see just how much better he’s gotten at making contact. Again, Bryant’s rookie numbers in these areas are actually far worse and were compiled over an appreciably larger sample size, but the fact remains that he’s still growing and learning as a hitter. I could just leave it at “Bryant will be fine because he’ll mature as a hitter,” but that’s not very fulfilling.
I know the batted-ball velo didn’t stack up all that great, but Bryant does hit the ball hard. When a guy’s capable of hitting 30+ home runs, you can’t just play him on the edge of the grass. I don’t care if you’re Nolan Arenado, you don’t want to be standing 85 feet away when KB launches a rocket down the line. It’s actually that fear that has helped the young slugger to create hits out of what might be routine grounders for other guys. Well, fear and maybe those problematic contact rates.
Bryant’s average velocity on ground balls last year was only 82.55 mph, which placed him 209th among hitters with at least 190 recorded at-bats. That is not good. However, when combined with his long strides and the fact that he busted it out of the box and down the line, it helped Bryant to lead the majors in infield-hit percentage (14.4%, actually tied with the Padres’ Derek Norris). Those 18 infield hits might not seem like much, but they helped to boost his BABIP.
So back to the contact rates again. If a player has as much trouble as Bryant did just making contact, it figures that he’s also having a bit of trouble making the right contact. It goes without saying that this kid can do some serious damage when he squares the ball up, he just needs to learn to do so more often. To wit, it’s important to note that Bryant’s 20.5% line-drive rate was the lowest among the top 15 BABIP leaders in 2015. And no player in the top 105 BABIP leaders exceeded Bryant’s 45.2% fly-ball rate.
That uppercut swing is a thing of beauty when it sends a ball soaring into the upper-right corner of the left field video board at Wrigley for the longest home run in the Majors in 2015, but it’s not as sexy when it’s popping balls harmlessly to right or whiffing on a changeup. If Bryant can get the swing and the approach dialed in — and we’re talking about millimeters and fractions of a second here — the contact rates will come up, some of the pop-ups will become liners, and the ground-ball velo will rise.
What might seem strange about this is that, even if he makes all those improvements, the BABIP is likely to drop significantly. That’s not actually a bad thing though. In 2015, Bryant was very lucky but he didn’t create as many opportunities from which to benefit from said luck. By making adjustments, he’ll actually be taking more control of his destiny and won’t be nearly as reliant on good fortune.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that while Bryant’s season was largely a product of some good luck, that luck is also largely a product of Kris Bryant. I think it’s going to be fascinating to follow these numbers over the coming months and to watch exactly how the rising superstar makes adjustments in order to shift from a consumer of serendipity into a producer. If he was scary in 2015 with those obvious flaws in his game, just think of what could happen when he corrects some of them.