Ted Williams would have been proud.
Friday marked the 58th anniversary of the Splendid Splinter’s 521st career home run, which came quite fittingly in his final plate appearance. And though it’s nigh impossible to match the drama of that shot, Kris Bryant did his best to emulate the man who provided the blueprint for his approach.
Hit it hard and hit it in the air. That’s what Mike Bryant, who grew up in Massachusetts and played in the Red Sox organization, passes along to all of his students. He’s a zealous Williams disciple who claims The Science of Hitting as his Bible, preaching that launch angle is really just a new way to measure the tenets set forth in that good book.
Not everyone has kept the faith in Bryant Baseball Academy‘s prize pupil, questioning the former MVP’s power stroke or his ability to use the entire field. The rabble was pacified when Bryant homered in Arizona, but it gained volume during the 3-for-18 (.167) stretch that followed. The best way to quiet things down again is by making a really loud noise.
With the Cubs up 2-0 in the bottom of the 4th and in need of some insurance runs, Bryant dug in against the Cards’ Adam Wainwright. He took the first pitch, a curve, up and in for ball one. Then he looked at a sinker to even the count. It was clear after the results of Bryant’s first at-bat what was coming next.
The Cubs had sent seven men to the plate in the 1st inning, so Bryant got a very early chance despite batting sixth in the order. This was his third straight game in the six spot, with Joe Maddon reasoning that it gives the oft-injured slugger a chance to drive in more runs. What the manager isn’t saying publicly is that perhaps Bryant’s seemingly diminished power leaves him more suited to a spot that relies more on superior contact.
But that hasn’t really been the case since Bryant returned from an extended DL stint due to an injured shoulder. His 16.8 percent swinging-strike and 65.3 percent contact rates in 84 September plate appearances were actually slightly worse than the 16.5 and 66.3 he posted during a rookie campaign in which he led the NL in strikeouts. Most of that is timing.
Being sidelined for over a month is going to mess with any hitter’s internal firing mechanism, especially someone like Bryant who relishes the repetitive drill of honing and maintaining his swing. Not only was he unable to work on his craft throughout most of his time on the shelf, he had to alter his mechanics in order to alleviate additional stress on the shoulder. No wonder he’s taken a while to get right.
And Friday was his first game back after a 96 mph Chris Archer fastball to the wrist in Tuesday’s loss forced him to sit out the two wins against Pittsburgh. Which is why seeing him wave helplessly at a pair of Waino’s Uncle Charlies wasn’t entirely unexpected. Or maybe Bryant was pulling the old rope-a-dope.
When the Redbirds’ veteran righty went back to the well the second time he faced Bryant — this is where we pick up that earlier cliffhanger — he humped the curve up there right over the heart of the plate. And boy howdy, did KB put some sauce on that meatball.
His 448-foot blast put a dent in the batter’s eye out in dead center, giving KB two homers since returning from the DL and two to dead center this season. But what makes it more improbable is that he hit it on a curveball, the first time he’s done so in 2018. The bender had vexed him to the tune of a .132 average, .211 slugging, and a .079 ISO, all of which are easily his lowest against any pitch this season.
Which is where we get to the really good part. Even though it’s only one at-bat, bashing a curve is a sign that Bryant is indeed coming around. Baseball is a game of spurts and slumps, with the latter becoming even more prevalent for someone in Bryant’s situation. So catching a hot streak right here at the end bodes well for the Cubs’ playoff chances.
Then again, it’s something of a misnomer to say that Bryant has been in any kind of real hitting slump at all lately. That anyone could look at a .274/.357/.397 slash with a .332 wOBA and 108 wRC+ as unacceptable performance is a testament to just how good this guy is. But I suppose being merely above average isn’t what you expect from one of the greatest in the game, even if he has been hurt most of the season.
As for me, I’m loving what Bryant’s recent performance says about what he brings to the table moving forward. His batted-ball data showed a clear upward trend over the first three weeks of the month, though it tapered back off prior to a scheduled rest day and the HBP that sat him for two more. Maybe getting a little extra time to shake the fatigue in his shoulder will be better for him.
Also encouraging is the location of his hits, namely that he’s using the opposite field to better effect since coming back. Though going from 18.6 to 22.2 percent oppo might not seem like much, consider that it’s actually a 20 percent jump. Then you’ve got the homers, which have come to right and center, indicating that his focus on hitting over and away from the shift is paying off. As Bryant continues to dial in his timing, that ability to turn on inside heat while also driving pitches on the outer third (which he did like a demon in college) will keep opposing pitchers on their toes.
But if you don’t mind, I’d like to keep this quiet so they keep trying to beat Bryant outside.