Kris Bryant: The Earliest Adopter

PITTSBURGH — Nearly 20 years ago, in the back yard of his half-acre lot in suburban Las Vegas, Mike Bryant completed what has became a crucial construction project for his family and the Chicago Cubs. Foundational holes were dug, and concrete was poured, to support three metal frames from which nylon netting was draped. The result: a spartan batting cage within feet of his home.

Kris Bryant often waited until the evenings, when his father had completed his private hitting instruction, to enter the cage.

“We had some lights that weren’t very good, but they did the job,” said Bryant of evening hitting sessions. “[The cage] was just a net and some dirt on the ground. The net had holes everywhere. You’d be hitting baseballs across the street and into other houses… But I was fortunate to have it at my finger tips and swing whenever I wanted. Other guys had to go to a local batting cage and find time to hit.”

Bryant hit balls across the street and against neighbors’ homes because he hit the ball in the air. In the cage, Mike Bryant taught his son to elevate the ball. He would create targets in the upper part of the netting and challenge Bryant to direct the ball there. The targets were always raised above the ground.

“It would be like, ‘Try to hit in the back right-hand corner of the cage. Try to hit it right there.’ It’s almost something I practiced when I was younger and didn’t know,” said Bryant of his uppercut plane. “Being young, you are not as focused on your swing, you are just out there hitting. But my dad would do certain games in the cage where I would hit targets in the air and I would practice it.”

While it’s probably unnecessary to remind our loyal readers that we’ve written often about the fly-ball revolution at FanGraphs this offseason and spring, you can read some of our musings here, here, and here.

Last week, I checked in to see if we’re witnessing any fly-ball changers early this season. It appears that we are. Bryant was among the gainers. He ranks fifth in fly-ball percentage since his debut.

But so much of the focus of batted-ball trends has centered on major leaguers who’ve changed their swings. From the early adopters like Marlon Byrd, Josh Donaldson, J.D. Martinez, and Justin Turner, to players now like Ryan Zimmerman and perhaps Francisco Lindor. More major leaguers have added loft to their swings, working against much of the instruction they’d received in amateur and professional baseball.

This week, the Chicago Cubs were in town, and I wanted to speak with Kris Bryant, perhaps the earliest adopter of the uppercut swing plane in the game today. He started at five.

What if the next generation of hitters are increasingly wired like Bryant, being taught to lift the ball from the time they begin playing? While the batted-ball trends are interesting to follow at the professional level, such a movement could perhaps have more meaning and impact at the grassroots level.

It’s unclear how many professional hitters can successfully rebuild their swings and re-wire their muscle memory the way a Martinez or Turner have, relatively quickly, requiring just an offseason of work. There’s also perhaps a bias at work: we only really hear about, and report on, the success stories. But what if more hitters master the philosophy at a younger age? What if teaching changes at the amateur level?

Kris Bryant is more than the adopter of a bat plane, of course. He’s an excellent athlete with plus bat speed. He’s the owner of a 6-foot-5 frame that allows for rare leverage in his swing. Kris Bryant is the best-case-possible-scenario outcome for an amateur baseball player. But his story is still something to consider.

And in 110 degree heat and desert chill — the cage has since been rebuilt, enclosed and climate-controlled — the batting cage allowed Kris Bryant easy access to reps, and to master the Ted Williams philosophy of hitting taught to him by his father, a swing that included an uppercut plane.

Kris learned everything from his father, Mike, who learned everything form Ted Williams’ book The Science of Hitting. Mike Bryant was a ninth-round pick of the Red Sox and spent one season playing minor-league ball. For the past 16 years, he’s been a private hitting instructor in Las Vegas. Said Mike Bryant in a New York Times piece by Billy Witz during last fall’s World Series:

“Ted was 60 years ahead of his time, 60 years ahead of his time … Nobody was teaching that. I have just made it my life’s mission to articulate his hitting philosophies and positions because I’m a hitting instructor.”

FanGraphs editor and ESPN writer Robert Sanchez wrote about some of the father-son, teacher-pupil relationship last spring.

Mike teaches the hitting the way Ted Williams taught him at spring training in the early 1980s, when Mike was a center fielder trying to survive the Red Sox’s farm system. Use a slight uppercut to launch the ball into the air. If it was good enough for the best hitter ever, Mike thought, it was good enough for his boys.

Bryant’s ground-ball to fly-ball ratios from the minor leagues suggest his approach has been consistent since he became a professional:

Mr. Fly Ball, Kris Bryant
Season GB/FB
2013 Cubs (R) 0.20
2014 Cubs (A-) 0.55
2013 Cubs (A+) 0.88
2014 Cubs (AA) 0.65
2014 Cubs (AAA) 0.59
2015 Cubs (AAA) 0.50
2015 Cubs 0.76
2016 Cubs 0.67
2017 Cubs 0.52

There’s always resistance to unorthodox teachings, though, and there was resistance from some amateur and private instructors Bryant encountered in Vegas.

“Absolutely, I think it still does [exist] in Vegas,” Bryant said of resistance. “You do hitting lessons, there are some instructors there that teach differently… In Little League, all coaches are telling you to hit the ball on the ground because, when you are younger, it’s tougher to make a play. But my dad knew what was best… it was always ‘In the air.’ He knew what would get me further in playing this game. Hit a ball in the air and you do more damage. And when your dad is teaching you, you are going to listen to him. It’s your dad. You listen to what he says.”

While Mike Bryant’s teaching methods have been explored and reported in national media outlets over the last year, what has since changed is the number of hitters buying into the approach. What has changed is the increased visibility of the philosophy and the power of the voice of the private instructors outside the game teaching it.

Bryant has seen a change this year. He has heard more players talk about lifting the ball, discussing swing planes. Anecdotally, he’s seen more players lift the ball. He’s seen more players become curious about the data.

“Especially now, this year, I think there is more of an emphasis on it,” Bryant said. “You see the launch angles, Statcast, all these numbers. If the numbers are there for you, it would be kind of silly not to use it your advantage.”

And what if more and more hitters from the next generation use this philosophy to their advantage? It’s a movement that could fundamentally change the game. And the earlier a hitter starts, the better chance he has to master a swing, a craft. Bryant is the earliest adopter and there could be many more on the way.





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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southie
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southie

I was surprised at how pedestrian his numbers looked on surface when I clicked on him. Then saw a sub 7 hr/fb %

southie
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southie

Sorry I had a point but cell phone issues and well

dtpollitt
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dtpollitt

Bryant’s Hard% is down 13% so far this year, that’s probably why his HR/FB% is down.