The most impressive thing about Kris Bryant isn’t the effortless stroke that generates video-board-denting home runs. It’s not the gazelle-like stride that allows him to round the bases in only a few steps. It’s not even the twinkly blue eyes that at once evoke the come-hither of a fashion model and the steely resolve of an assassin. No, the most impressive aspect of Bryant’s game is his ability to improve.
Perhaps as limitless as his future earning potential, Bryant’s aptitude for reading and reacting to each new level of the game is astounding. Due in large part to a drive fostered by his father, Mike, the elite slugger has never been content with good enough. When he realized in college that his upright stance and moderate leg kick didn’t provide enough plate coverage, he adopted more of the wide-based squat we see today.
As you might imagine, it took some convincing to get the teenage Bryant to believe he could still be as productive and powerful a hitter without the stride and with his head 10 inches lower to the ground. But in the end, a home run that travels 450 feet is worth just as much as one that goes 550 or more. The change resulted in Bryant generating more opposite field power en route to leading college baseball in home runs. It still wasn’t enough.
The same 38-degree vertical angle of his bat path that led to moonshot home runs and a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign also left Bryant with a big hole in his swing on the outer part of the plate. Back to the lab, or, more accurately, the batting cage, where the Bryant boys set to work reducing that angle to a more ideal 25 degrees over the course of six or seven thousand swings in the winter prior to the 2016 season.
More than just reducing the launch angle of his batted balls, which led to more line drives, the change meant a drastic improvement in contact rate and swinging-strike rate. And in case you’re thinking this is just part of the normal maturation of a young baseball player, it’s not. What Bryant is doing in terms of the growth in his contact rate is nigh unprecedented, a burning testament to just how much better he can get.
And that’s the thing, he can still get a lot better. After posting a 66.3 percent contact rate as a rookie, Bryant leapt to 73.3 percent last season and is currently at an even 78 percent. His swinging-strike rate has moved in the opposite direction, from 16.5 to 13 to 10 percent year-over-year. In the interest of developing better context, the overall MLB averages in those two metrics are 77.6 and 10.3 percent. Not bad for a guy with too much swing-and-miss in his game, huh?
So what’s next for a man who has already racked up nearly every performance-based individual award his sport can offer, not to mention the World Series title? How can he possibly improve upon these results? The answer can be found in his looking-strike percentage, a sign of Bryant’s latent potential for the type of growth that could truly launch him into the next level of elite hitters.
Before we dig into the metrics a little further, let’s look back at what the MVP’s father said about his son’s approach and how it can yet improve.
He’s still, again, he’s in the trust-but-verify stage on that. He doesn’t go and pore over it intensely. He’ll brief himself on the scouting report that’s there of the pitcher every day, what he likes to throw in certain counts and stuff like that. But he doesn’t like a lot of details and he doesn’t like to guess and he’s not comfortable doing that yet.
Adrian Gonzalez nowadays, being in his mid 30’s, he sits on pitches. Big Papi was sitting on pitches. If a pitcher up there knows he’s sitting on a pitch, which is what they did with Bonds, that’s why he walked 225 times.
Will Kris get that respect? Maybe. And if you start to see that, then Kris will start walking a lot more. We get into the hundreds of walks a year, 150 walks a year, which’ll be amazing because he’ll start sitting on pitches. But he won’t sit on pitches now because he doesn’t trust his thinking yet. Eventually he will, as he gains experience.
It’s the big leagues and these pitchers, they’re just not going to give into you. They’re not going to say, “Here, here’s my fastball. Hit it.” They’re just not going to do it. He does look at some reports and he’ll look at video. If he’s had a bad game or a good game and he’ll see what he’s doing good and what he’s doing bad or wrong, or if there’s anything different and he just needs to be a little bit more patient up there and wait for the game to come to him.
Bryant should walk just over 100 times if he maintains his current pace, but it’s the other side of taking pitches I want to address here if I may. In contrast to the precipitous drop in swinging strikes, Bryant has experienced a slight uptick in looking strikes (from 19.5 to 20.9 to 21.5) over the last three seasons. Looks like a negligible change, right? Sure, until you see that his looking strikeout percentage has jumped from 18.6 percent as a rookie to 29.4 percent so far this season.
I should note here that these numbers may not have stabilized yet and that they could change dramatically by season’s end, but it’s notable that a 10 percent increase in overall looking strikes has precipitated a 58 percent increase in looking strikeouts. Some of that may be owing to the subjective calls of umpires like Joe West, though Statcast data shows that Bryant has yet to take a called third strike on a pitch outside the zone this season. (He’s been rung up 17 times in the two previous seasons.)
Do you see where I’m going with this yet? As Bryant learns to really trust his thinking up there at the plate and starts to get even more respect from pitchers — who continue to define insanity by trying to beat him inside — those looking strikes in the zone will become hits and he’ll get more pitches out of the zone that will turn into walks. Rather than some alchemic attempt to turn lead into gold, we’re talking about a man who can turn gold into platinum.
What’s more, Bryant is going to be able to do some serious damage with pitches away. He’s already improved his outside-the-zone contact rate from under 50 percent to over 63 percent and has launched two opposite-field home runs in the last week, one more than he hit all of last year. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as 27 of Bryant’s 43 home runs in 2014 landed to the right of center. Seeing that power to all fields manifest at this level, though, is further evidence of growth.
The more I watch Kris Bryant and the more I learn about exactly what he has done — and is still doing — to improve, the more I just sit back and shake my head. I have no idea what the limit is for this young man, but I know we haven’t seen anything close to it yet.