As much as I hate coming off like a hot-take artist, I have to admit that I’m beginning to think Kris Bryant is going to be pretty good. I know, I know, that’s really premature and is based on nothing more than the Golden Spikes award as collegiate baseball’s player, which was followed by his Rookie of the Year win in 2015 and then his 2016 NL MVP. Can we really base conclusions on those things, though?
Well, yeah, of course we can.
But the thing is, I don’t even pay attention to the trophies when I look at what makes Bryant so great. As telling as those accolades are when it comes to what he’s done, they’re little more than dated pencil marks on the growth chart that records what is setting up to be a Hall of Fame career.
More high line drives than lifting the ball. Focusing on pitch recognition by seeing it and tracking it. Mike Bryant, on his son’s offseason work
If I’m being really honest, the thing that really impresses me about Bryant is his drive to constantly get better. He’s never stopped being the little boy who waited patiently for the time his dad, Mike, would finally be done with lessons for the older kids so he could take his turn in the cage.
That cage has gotten a little nicer and the tools they use to measure the swing have gotten a lot more sophisticated, but the Bryants are still spending every spare moment trying to improve. Cubs Insider got a peek behind the curtain of those hitting sessions when our Brendan Miller spoke with Mike Bryant (you should really read this if you haven’t already) last year about how he and his son had worked to improve upon that MVP campaign.
I recently checked back in with the elder Bryant to find out what the pair had focused on this past offseason and what we should be looking for in 2018.
“Nothing special: Better zone coverage, hitting everything (to) center/right-center,” Mike told CI. “More high line drives than lifting the ball. Focusing on pitch recognition by seeing it and tracking it.”
We’ll get to that last part here in a bit, but I’d first like to touch on the part about high line drives. Bryant’s dad is a noted Ted Williams devotee, a Massachusetts native who had the chance to pick the brain of one of the game’s greatest hitters during his time in the Red Sox organization. He’s developed his whole coaching philosophy around the idea of hitting the ball hard and hitting it in the air.
Using that general idea as a framework, Mike has crafted a training program for Kris that will produce the ideal swing plane. Which is to say it’ll generate more line drives and fly balls while maximizing plate coverage and cutting down on whiffs at the same time. From the looks of those decreasing strikeout rates, it appears to be working.
“If you’re too much vertical you have a lot of swing-and-miss in your game,” Mike told CI last year. “So my goal was really simple: To reduce the swing-and-miss in the zone; to get him from chasing pitches out of the zone; and to hit more balls in the air. I want a higher ratio of balls in the air to balls on the ground.”
Mission accomplished, right? Well, mostly. As good as Bryant has looked in his three years in Chicago, he still has plenty of room to grow. As Mike told us in that first interview, one key to unlocking the next stage of growth will be gaining enough experience to start sitting on pitches. When a young player with that much talent is able to understand what’s coming and what to do with it…wow.
Kris Bryant’s simple four-part approach: See it; Track it; Be easy; Go oppo.
So guess what the Bryants were working on in Las Vegas prior to spring training.
“Tracking the ball is just part of an approach that raises one’s awareness level, trying to see the spin on it as early as one can,” Mike shared with CI. “I call it : See it; Track it; Be easy; Go oppo.
“Pick the ball up out of the hand (See it), then laser-beam focus on it (Track it), then kick in the ‘relax mechanism’ (Be easy), and try to drive it to the opposite field gap (Go oppo), which locks in good mechanics.”
And in case you’re wondering, no, Papa Bryant doesn’t have a freakish Yu Darvish repertoire that he unleashes in the cage. Instead, he employs a Hack Attack pitching machine — the same thing the Cubs use in their own facilities — that is capable of firing out various pitches with appropriate spin and velocity. And here I was hoping we’d see a comeback from the soon-to-be 59-year-old.
Rather than chasing his own glory, though, dad’s plenty content to revel in his son’s success. You know, like watching KB bash home runs over the wall behind which his parents got engaged. And that means taking lessons learned from Teddy Ballgame and applying them with a more modern twist.
“We spent a lot of time and effort controlling the vertical angle of the bat as it crosses the plate in the hitting zone [by using Zepp Analytics, which we learned from the earlier interview] and driving line drives 15-20 feet in the air,” Mike said. “Just getting better at what he has been doing the last three years.”
And that, my friends, is very bad news for opponents. A lot of attention is paid to how Bryant has been able to improve his walk and strikeout rates, and rightfully so, but what about when he actually puts the ball in play? Teams have increasingly opted to use shifts to combat the game’s best hitters, which is where those high line drives come in.
We spent a lot of time and effort controlling the vertical angle of the bat as it crosses the plate in the hitting zone and driving line drives 15-20 feet in the air. Just getting better at what he has been doing the last three years.
Williams never worried about a shift because he’d just hit over it, a practice Bryant has been trying to mimic. To wit, Bryant’s wRC+ against the shift went from 54 in his rookie season to 96 during his MVP campaign before jumping to 118 last year.
Even that inflated mark sits 25 points below his overall career average, telling us there’s plenty of room for improvement. Think about that for a moment. You’d laugh at me if I told you Bryant’s eyes could get more sparkly or his smile could somehow develop more wattage, but here I am telling you that his offensive production can still get a lot better. And he just turned 26, so he’s only now entering his athletic prime.
As you’re watching the games in Mesa, and then in Chicago, pay attention to how Bryant reacts to various pitches and whether he’s able to wait back on breaking and offspeed stuff (something Chili Davis may be able to help with throughout the season). Look for how he’s driving the ball over the shift and into the oppo gap. Just make sure you don’t get lost in those eyes.
And don’t be surprised when his numbers keep climbing like one of his majestic home runs.