Kris Bryant Is Now a… Contact Hitter?

One of the great questions about Kris Bryant early in his career — actually, one of the only questions — was if he would make enough contact to become an impact player.

He struck out in 30.6% of his plate appearances as a rookie in 2015 and had K’d in at least a quarter of his plate appearances in stops at High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A as arguably the game’s top prospect.

There was no doubt about his power. Bryant crushed ball after ball out of Cactus League stadiums in the spring of 2015, creating a stir about just how the Cubs could justify keeping him off their Opening Day roster. The home run played a large part in his Rookie of the Year and MVP campaigns in 2015 and 2016.

But early this season, accelerating what was a gradual trend, Bryant has made a remarkable change, having recorded a better-than-average strikeout rate. Is it possible that Kris Bryant is now contact hitter?

This season, Bryant ranks 20th in the sport in zone contact rate (92.0%), just ahead of Buster Posey, one of the better contact hitters in the game. In his rookie year, by contrast, Bryant ranked 207th out of 211 hitters (with 400 or more plate appearance) by that same measure, at 77.5%, sandwiched between Chris Davis and Khris Davis,

In 2015, Bryant ranked 208th out of 211 batters in swinging-strike rate (17.2%).This season? He’s 45th, at 8.1%.

The march has been gradual and consistent, with Bryant cutting his swinging-strike rate to 13% in 2016 and 10% in 2017. His zone contact rate improved to 83% in 2016 and 86.8% last season.

It’s a dramatic development.

Consider Bryant’s whiff’s per swing via this Brooks Baseball Brooks Baseball:

While his overall swing rate remains similar, he’s become more disciplined and made much more consistent contact. The question is: is this coming at the cost of power? (Even if it is, of course, he also has a 159 wRC+ at the moment, which would mark a career best for a season.)

Bryant hit just two home runs in April. He has three on the season. He hit 29 home runs last season, down from 39 in 2016 when he was the NL MVP. As his contact levels have spiked, his power — perhaps related — has sunk.

Bryant wasn’t available to the press when the Cubs were in Cleveland last week, sidelined by a head injury, so I asked Cubs’ new hitting coach Chili Davis what we should make of Bryant’s first month of 2018.

Davis began by refuting the idea that any mechanical issue, or Bryant’s long 6-foot-5 frame, precluded him from being the superior contact hitter he’s been to date.

“KB has such a simple swing,” Davis said. “The strikeouts [had] nothing to do with his mechanics.”

Davis says the change is in large part because Bryant has matured as a hitter.

“I think the more he stays in the zone before two strikes, he’s going to get better pitches to hit,” Davis said. “He’s gotta believe in ‘The I stay in my zone, the more I am stubborn in my zone, the more I am going to hit mistakes. The less I am going to tell a pitcher how to pitch me by going after pitches I can’t hit hard, or hit at all.’”

And perhaps we are seeing that. Davis said he and Bryant “talk all the time.” As I spoke to Davis outside the clubhouse seated on some steps leading to the visiting dugout at Progressive Field, Bryant walked up and gave Davis a fist bump. In that very small sample, they seemed to be on amicable, pupil-mentor terms.

“He agrees with me that it makes lot more sense,” Davis said. “There’s a certain part of the zone he needs to stay in… If he becomes more of a zone hitter than a pitch-type hitter, he’s going to be a much better hitter.”

Bryant is staying out of the lower part of the zone more often with his swings but he also appears to be trying to better cover the outside part of the plate.

Consider his 2016 swing chart:

And 2017 swing chart:

And 2018:

Bryant is doing a better job avoiding chase below the zone. Perhaps Bryant ought to just give up on that outside pitch altogether: he’s never hit for much power on the outside part of the plate and would be more prone to roll over on such pitches for ground balls:

Davis didn’t speak much about mechanics, but Bryant also has a couple other outlying numbers. He’s the most ground-ball prone he’s been in his career: early this season marks the first time he’s ever hit more balls on the ground compared to in the air (1.12). And his pull percentage is up nine percentage points from last year and has breached 50% (50.7%) for the first time since he was in Double-A.

Neither Davis nor Cubs manager Joe Maddon believes in teaching “launch angle.”

While Bryant hasn’t lost any fly-ball distance, he’s lost a bit of exit velo from his peak, and more significant is his launch angle is down.

Is Kris Bryant Powering Down?
Season Avg. Exit Velocity Avg. EV on Air Balls Avg. Fly-Ball Distance Avg. Launch Angle
2015 89.6 94.8 326 19.4
2016 89.3 93.8 329 20.9
2017 87.1 92.2 314 16.9
2018 88.7 92.3 331 12.9
SOURCE: Statcast via Baseball Savant

As Jeff Sullivan wrote Friday, launch angle isn’t for everyone — including Kyle Schwarber, whose GB/FB sits at 1.63 on the year.

Is the new Cubs’ hitting coach having an impact, team wide, on launch? Not really. The Cubs’ ground-ball rate as a team has actually dipped to 42.8% from 45.5% last year. The Cubs’ average launch angle is 11.3 degrees this year, after sitting at 11.1 degrees last year.

Launch angle isn’t for everyone, but it’s always been a thing for Bryant, an early adopter whose father taught him to hit the top of the net in their backyard batting cage in Las Vegas.

It doesn’t look like Bryant has changed his mechanics. Here’s a small sample, two swings from 2017 and 2018 — nearly a year apart from April to April — against two-seamers that he grounded into the turf. But his shoulder dipped and his bat was in position in attempt to launch. That’s the Bryant swing that has launched so many pitches into the air.

2017:

2018:

While Bryant’s power might be lagging. Perhaps it’s only a temporary condition. We know Bryant has a ton raw power that he’s successfully translated into game action. And if that game power soon returns with real contact gains, maybe there’s another MVP award in his future.

We hoped you liked reading Kris Bryant Is Now a… Contact Hitter? by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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tipsymcstaggers
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tipsymcstaggers

Excellent article, thanks Travis! Been curious about Bryant’s approach this year and how it compares to past years, really interesting to hear the insights from Davis on what they talk about.