The nice thing about being a baseball writer — specifically, one who analyzes the sport — in the year 2016 is that sometimes players just come right out and start talking about their launch angle. Free topic! A player coming out and talking about his launch angle is the same thing as a player calling my direct line and telling me to please write a post about him. Kris Bryant called my direct line the other day and told me to please write a post about him. Not really. But he did come out and start talking about his launch angle, and I took the hint.
Kris Bryant was fantastic last year. He was fantastic for any type of player, but he was especially fantastic for a rookie. For that, he won an award. He can’t win that same award anymore, on account of no longer being a rookie, but he presumably wants to win more awards and so he’d like to get even better. Bryant was great, but he was great in this weird way, in that he succeeded while making contact on barely two-thirds of his swings. He wasn’t the first to do it, but the company he kept wasn’t particularly inspiring. Look for qualified seasons and sort by contact rate and you’ll find Bryant’s name around the likes of Jack Cust, Pedro Alvarez, Russell Branyan, Dan Uggla, and Ryan Howard. Bryant figured he could succeed and keep better company, so he entered this season with a new plan in mind.
Bryant actually first brought this up in the spring, and The Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales was on it:
“I feel (my swing is) a little flatter, and that’s what I wanted to be,” Bryant said. “It was at too steep of an angle at times. That was my downfall last year, but I think it can only get better from here.
And it’s true. When Rob Arthur wrote about the new science of hitting for FiveThirtyEight last month, he noted Bryant had one of baseball’s highest average launch angles in 2015. While a high launch angle, combined with Bryant’s strength, can lead to those majestic, towering home runs that are so fun to watch, Bryant and the Cubs were worried that his extreme swing plane also contributed to many of his whiffs, the whiffs that left him without much margin for error.
So they worked on a flatter swing. They don’t want Bryant hitting ground balls, they just wanted to correct course a bit. Ideally, they want Bryant’s launch angle between 25 and 30 degrees as often as possible, which makes perfect sense upon considering this graphic from that same Arthur piece:
A launch angle between 25 and 30 degrees is where the home runs live, and it’s where the line drives live. Bryant’s got the strength to hit line drives for homers — he doesn’t need the extreme launch angle — and when Bryant hit the ball on a line last year, he was the second-best hitter in baseball. Bryant slugged 1.107 on line drives in 2015. The Cubs wanted more of that. And more contact, so as to take better advantage of the hopefully newfound line drives.
Well, Bryant’s contact rate is up seven percentage points, and that’s the fifth-largest increase in baseball. His line-drive rate is up six percentage points, and presently sits among the highest 20 such rates in baseball. Last year, 6% of Bryant’s batted balls were in that ideal 25- to 30-degree band. This year, one of every 10 batted balls has left that bat at his desired launch angle.
It’s worth pointing out that Bryant’s production is no better, but it’s no worse, either. To me, this is more about raising the floor — or, to think of it another way, limiting risk. Now, Bryant’s got some margin for error. He’s still got the freakish power, he’s still got the elite eye, but he’s got some wiggle room with how much contact he’s making. Bryant is no longer awing us with how he’s succeeding and making us wonder whether it’s sustainable; he’s just awing us.
You’re probably interested in what this all looks like. I know I was, so I found two home runs on near-identical pitches: 95-mph fastballs, low-and-inside, one from last year and one from this year. When Bryant hit that pitch for a homer last year, he did so with a launch angle of 36 degrees. When he did it this year, he hit it with the perfect launch angle — 27 degrees. Both equally positive results, but this more recent homer is the kind Bryant wants to hit, because it was hit with a swing that he feels is more sustainable. He’ll take the moon shots, of course, but he’d rather they come on a line.
The homer swing from last year, the type Bryant would like to get rid of:
The homer swing from this year, the type Bryant would like to see more of:
It’s simple to spot the difference. Just like Bryant said back in the spring, the swing is flatter. The genesis of the change is in the hands. The fix was as simple as altering the load. Let’s break these swings down even further. Just watch the hands.
The first movement of the hands is down. Notice how early that back shoulder dips. With the hands going straight down and the back shoulder dipping like that, Bryant is immediately committing to a location. Even though he committed to the right location on this particular swing, this is one way to end up with all those whiffs and foul balls.
Now, from 2016:
The first movement of the hands is in, and the bat spends more time in the zone. It’s a more adaptable swing, yet still a powerful swing, thanks to Bryant’s elite bat speed.
Just looking at the surface numbers — the average, the on-base, the power — Bryant looks no different from last year. But he’s got a new swing, and this is an adjustment that’s encouraging on many levels. It’s encouraging because, as long as the production doesn’t suffer, you’d always rather have fewer strikeouts than more strikeouts. It’s encouraging because the Cubs found meaningful data and were able to communicate it to their player in a way that was both understandable and convincing. And it’s encouraging because that 24-year-old player not only bought into the data, but vocalized in spring training what he wanted fix and has already fixed it with a new swing.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.