The first thing you would probably notice about Kris Bryant is that he’s tall. But when you ask him how that’s affected his plate discipline, you’ll stump him for a second.
At least when it comes to walks, Bryant hasn’t worried too much about having a bigger strike zone. “I haven’t been 6’5″ my whole life,” he laughed. He may not be an Eddie Stanky, but as he’s grown, he’s “figured out” his own strike zone, and begun focusing on getting to pitches in order to use his length as a strength.
If you run a straight correlation of height to walk rate over the last seven years, you get a negative relationship. And it seems like maybe there’s something there at first — there’s a .1 r-squared (negative relationship), meaning that height would explain about 10% of the variance in walk rate. But there are a lot of tall pitchers gumming up the works. Weight that correlation by plate appearances, and the r-squared drops to 0.02. Looks like you don’t have to worry too much about your tall batter suffering at the hands of a tall strike zone, at least not once he’s proven himself to an extent.
Scouts often talk of long levers and the leverage that height can grant the athlete. We’ve seen that height might be overrated once you have a professional pitcher on your hands, but how does height affect the batter? “There are definitely advantages to being tall,” said Bryant before a spring game. “I have more loft and extension than some of the shorter guys.”
Re-run that weighted correlation between height and isolated slugging percentage, and you get a decent relationship. An r-squared of .125 means that height explains over 12% of the variance in power. Considering how complicated a swing can be, knowing that much about a players power from one readily-observed number is interesting.
Look at the players that are Bryant’s height or taller, and there’s Alex Rios with the most plate appearances in our sample. But below him are more prototypical tall sluggers: Adam Dunn, Corey Hart, Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Richie Sexson, and so on. Do taller players have a harder time making contact, what with their long levers getting all mixed up?
Bryant thought it was possible. “I’m further away from the ground so for me to get the lower pitch, I have to be closer to the ball,” he said. “A guy who’s 5′ 10″ could probably stand straight up and get to that ball.” Height is indeed correlated to strikeout rate (.118 r-squared), so it does make sense to profile some of your taller players as big whiff-or-wham type of sluggers. Alex Rios aside.
And it might be something that’s gotten worse over the last few years. Players that were Bryant’s height or taller and have put up 300 or more plate appearances have struck out 22% of the time over the last three years, as the zone has expanded southward. That’s only slightly higher than the league average over that time period (20%), and there are only 20 players in the bucket, but it’s possible that they’ve been hurt by the new zone.
Over his career, Bryant has found a way to compensate some for the negatives that come from his height. “I stood more straight up in high school,” he said. Now he’s widened his stance, which helps him both augment his power as well as get to the low and away pitch.
High school Bryant just stood up there with his bat on his shoulder:
Just a few years later, he had a more pronounced crouch:
“Nobody likes striking out,” said Bryant. “I’ve always said you have to give something to get something. I’m giving some strikeouts to get some power, and I can live with that as long as I’m helping my team drive in runs.” Turns out, that’s how it works for your prototypical tall slugger.
Kris Bryant is tall. That probably doesn’t mean much for his walk rate, it might hurt him a bit when it comes to the strikeout, but it helps him hit the ball further. He’s happy about it, in the end. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said of his height.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.