Kris Bryant, High Ball Hitter

Let’s not sugarcoat it: Kris Bryant was bad last year. Sure, it was only 147 plate appearances, but the sheer broadness of his struggles made it feel longer. He set career lows in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, walk rate, barrel rate — you name it, and there’s a good chance he fell short in it. With the Cubs in salary relief mode this offseason, there was talk of a non-tender, and it certainly wasn’t good for Bryant’s free agency hopes.

That feels like less of a worry now. Through the first month of the season, Bryant has been tremendous. April marks don’t compare well to full-season numbers, but far from continuing his swoon, he’s posting the best numbers of his career nearly across the board. He looks like an MVP candidate again, and it’s a good thing for the Cubs, who need all the offensive help they can get given how many of their regulars are struggling.

What changed? As Tom Verducci detailed, Bryant is swinging differently, and it’s paid dividends so far this year. Let’s dig into the numbers and see how that new swing (in fairness, it’s still pretty similar to the old swing) is working so well.

Take a look at this heatmap of the four-seam fastballs Bryant faced in 2015 and ’16:

That’s right: four-seam fastballs low in the zone. Bryant devoured those pitches en route to 14 WAR over the two years. Next, look at the four-seamers he saw in 2019 and ’20:

Hello there, top third of the strike zone. It’s nice to make your acquaintance! Well, not nice for Bryant: After pitchers placed only 15% of their four-seamers in that upper third in ‘15 and ‘16, they upped that number to 20% in ‘19 and ‘20, taking those directly away from the bottom of the zone. That was bad news given Bryant’s propensity to swing through upper-third heat:

4S Fastball Whiff Rate by Zone
Year Lower Third Middle Third Upper Third
2015 13.0% 16.1% 36.1%
2016 9.0% 12.1% 20.2%
2017 9.3% 11.5% 14.4%
2018 0.0% 14.8% 18.5%
2019 10.6% 18.2% 26.4%
2020 10.0% 25.0% 43.8%
2021 7.1% 16.7% 4.5%

It’s hardly a news flash that a hitter who focuses on targeting the bottom third of the ball would struggle high in the strike zone. It’s not as though everything changed overnight — he still sees low fastballs and pitches over the middle of the plate — but replacing the low-hanging fruit with tough-to-hit pitches was a drag on his game overall.

That’s the theory, at least. In truth, his production against fastballs mostly held up until 2020, when it absolutely cratered. He subsisted on pitches down the middle or low, which paid for his travails up high. Here are his run values on fastballs he swung at, bucketed by their vertical location in the strike zone:

4S Fastball Run Value by Zone
Year Lower Third Middle Third Upper Third
2015 -1.8 -2.8 -1.2
2016 -0.8 11.2 -0.6
2017 2.2 0.5 -2.2
2018 0.3 1.7 2.8
2019 3.1 12.8 -4.4
2020 0.4 -0.5 -1.7
2021 1.5 -0.8 3.7

That’s a big pile of numbers, but he added 26 runs relative to average when swinging in the bottom two sectors in his career through 2020. He lost 7.3 runs relative to average when swinging at the top third.

Have you seen enough tables of numbers? How about a swing to cleanse the palate? Here’s Bryant facing Freddy Peralta last year:

And against Peralta this year:

Sure, I picked a home run and a lazy pop out, so the swings aren’t exactly representative. If you look closely, though, you can see the change Verducci mentioned. His hands stay high the entire time rather than diving and then climbing, which makes for a natural swing plane.

High fastballs, you see, aren’t solely useful because they miss bats. That’s a huge benefit, no doubt; in fact, it’s the majority of the reason to throw them. There’s one other reason, though: They produce pop-ups and lazy fly balls at a monstrous rate. Through 2020, more than a third of the high fastballs Bryant made contact with left his bat at a launch angle of 35 degrees or higher. That’s can of corn territory: Those balls produced a .111 batting average and .236 slugging percentage.

How can hitters fight back? By hitting the ball on a flatter plane. Hit it between 10 and 35 degrees, and good things happen. Even Bryant, uppercut swing and all, was great when he managed to make contact in that happy zone; he batted .631 with a 1.452 slugging percentage (again from 2015 to ’20) when he hit high fastballs in that range of angles. Line drives and low fly balls are good; who knew?

It’s still early, but Bryant has made contact with 11 high-in-the-zone fastballs this year, and only one has been a pop-up. He also smacked two of them into the ground. That leaves eight that he hit on the nose, and those have been wildly productive, to the tune of four homers, a double, and a single.

Yes, as it turns out, “smash line drives on pitchers’ most frequent offerings” is an excellent strategy. The book on Bryant had long been that you could beat him high in the zone, but he’s added 4.3 runs of value when he puts high fastballs into play this year, lapping the 1.7 runs he’s added in the rest of the strike zone.

There’s a secondary benefit to the reworked swing: better discipline. We’ve focused on in-zone fastballs so far, but pitchers locate four-seamers above the zone all the time. Bryant was a sucker for those pitches: He swung at them 35.6% of the time in his career before this year (the league as a whole checks in at 28.5% for the same time period). And not only did he swing too much at them, but he also missed a lot when he did swing. He was in the bottom quarter of all batters when it comes to swinging-strike rate on high fastballs, and while it’s possible to be a good hitter despite that — Bryce Harper, Tim Anderson, and Rafael Devers all placed worse on the list — it’s certainly not where you want to be.

It’s too early to say that Bryant has fixed this hole in his game. He’s only seen 22 fastballs above the zone, still a miniscule sample. But he looks like a new hitter: He’s swung at only four of those, an 18.2% chase rate. That’s four pitches that went from bad swings to good takes (based on his career chase rate), and the more he takes, the more pitchers are forced to engage him on his territory. His new high-ball-targeting swing seems to be increasing his ability to lay off bad high pitches.

This change isn’t completely without cost. He’s been less fearsome in the middle and bottom of the strike zone this year, which makes a bit of sense; his old swing was incredible against those pitches, so any change from that form was likely to be detrimental.

To that, let me offer a counter: Who cares? The value he’s picking up at the top of the zone is gargantuan. Bryant was a bad hitter against high fastballs before this year, particularly when he swung. Pitchers increasingly attacked that weakness. When he could do enough damage on sinkers and low four-seamers to offset that limitation, his game was fine. When that stopped happening — whether due to injury, approach, or a change in pitch mix — his game suffered greatly. Now that he can hit the high pitch, he can afford to give up value elsewhere. And what are pitchers supposed to do, throw him fastballs low in the zone? He might not be at his world-striding peak there, but he’s no slouch, and pitchers mostly avoid low four-seamers because they’re dangerous pitches. This new model of Bryant is hitting .346 with an .800 slugging percentage on middle and down fastballs (when he makes contact), and his expected statistics look good too. That’s the good option for pitchers — or at least the less bad option.

Hitting isn’t an exact science, because pitching isn’t an exact science. Feasting on low fastballs at the expense of a hole at the top of the zone worked as a strategy because pitchers can’t simply choose to avoid your happy zone; no one has perfect command to the point that they dictate the action. Waiting for mistakes low and punishing them clearly worked for Bryant when he came up. But as pitchers increasingly aimed higher, there were fewer of those mistakes, and it became ever easier to target Bryant’s weak point.

We can’t be sure that things have changed, what with us only being a month into the season, but this new swing is producing electric results at the top of the zone. It’s up to pitchers to adapt, if indeed they can. Bryant’s old swing took advantage of the prevailing pitching style. His new one does, too; that style has simply changed.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

“Let’s not sugarcoat it: Kris Bryant was bad last year.”

Actually…let’s sugarcoat it!! Remember in 2020 when the Cubs were pulled from the MLB schedule for nearly a week due to literally no fault or action on their end? The Cubs were 10-3, 3rd in the NL in runs scored, and Kris Bryant was on a .286/.400/.571 run! Sure his run was 25 PAs but since randomly so much focus and power has been given to small sample sizes, why not this one?! It’s certainly more in line with literally all the other baseballing he’s ever done

I’ve been thinking that his swing LOOKS different, better, and I’m glad to see it articulated some(I’ll read Verducci’s piece in a second):

“If you look closely, though, you can see the change Verducci mentioned. His hands stay high the entire time rather than diving and then climbing, which makes for a natural swing plane.”

If Bryant is back, and yeah I’m thinking he’s back, the rest of le Cubs shouldn’t be too far behind I say. Hilarious and infuriating that this guy, and really that team, was/is written off for so gd little despite literally years and years and years and years of work that trumps the vast majority of the competition’s resumes all day err day

Ron Santo's Little Helper
1 year ago
Reply to  SenorGato

Kris Bryant was bad last year, though it probably had more to do with his recurrent shoulder injury than anything else.

1 year ago

I think that was a factor sure, but mostly mostly it had much more to do with a 4 month delayed, 60 game schedule caused by a global pandemic during which he and his team were pulled off the schedule for a week just as they were clicking due to the actions of others :shrugs:

1 year ago
Reply to  SenorGato