What (If Anything) Is Wrong with Kris Bryant?

From the start of the series in which the White Sox visited the Cubs leading into the All-Star break through the end of this weekend’s trio of frustrating losses to the Phillies, Kris Bryant hit .120/.224/.260. In 58 plate appearances, he drew six walks and notched four extra-base hits (including a home run, Friday), but struck out 23 times and had a BABIP of .185. It was an ugly stretch, but it was only two weeks, after all, and much of the problem was that deflated BABIP.

Of course, many Cubs fans see it as a little bit more. They point out that Bryant has batted an unseemly .186/.287/.388 since the Cubs started their home-and-home series with the Indians on June 16, a span of 150 plate appearances. In those 150 plate appearances, Bryant has 48 strikeouts, 19 walks, 12 extra-base hits (six of them homers), and a .234 BABIP. In a seven-week sample, it gets harder to dismiss bad numbers as the products of bad luck, especially for a hitter fanning nearly a third of the time.

So what’s happening, exactly? Is Bryant in a two-week skid fueled by bad breaks, or a two-month slump fueled by a bad process? Let’s dig deeper, in search of the answer.

Here’s Bryant’s season, split into two parts: the aforementioned 150 plate appearances of struggles, and everything that came before them.

Kris Bryant, Before and Since June 16

Through June 15 236 15.7 29.7 .418 .192 .294 .403 .482
Since June 16 150 12.7 32.0 .234 .202 .186 .287 .388

He’s walked a bit less over the last seven weeks, and he’s struck out a bit more, but what really jumps out is that BABIP gap. Now, we know hitters influence the outcomes of batted balls much more than pitchers do, so it’s not fair to simply write off that difference. At the same time, we know that any sample of ball-in-play results as small as these—balls in play account for only 122 of those first 236 PA, and only 77 of the latter 150—is vulnerable to extreme distortion due solely to variance. So, just for fun, here are Bryant’s numbers in the same two samples, but with BABIP held equal at .333 in each. (Bryant had a .406 career BABIP in the minor leagues, which is not something one can do in the Majors, but which reflects his above-average BABIP skill. He hits the ball hard, to all fields. A .333 overall BABIP is far from an outrageous estimate of his true talent.)

Kris Bryant, Before and Since June 16, .333 BABIP Throughout

Through June 15 236 15.7 29.7 .333 .172 .244 .360 .416
Since June 16 150 12.7 32.0 .333 .217 .248 .340 .465

In other words, teasing out luck and examining only the things Bryant should be able to influence consistently, there’s a scant difference between what he was before his mega-slump, and what he has been during it. He’s traded some control of the strike zone for power as the season has worn on, and while that’s not necessarily an ideal swap, it’s very common for young players making their way through the league for the second time. It’s also, for whatever this is worth, something the Cubs have needed during the latter stretch. Bryant’s power has more or less weathered the slog of midsummer, in a way not even that of Anthony Rizzo has.

Maybe looking at results like these is too simplistic. Maybe those walk and strikeout numbers, though only creeping the wrong direction, are a hint that Bryant is struggling to control plate appearances, that his swing or his approach are broken.

Here are Bryant’s month-by-month plate-discipline stats:

Kris Bryant, Plate Discipline by Month, 2015

Month O-Swing % Z-Swing % O-Contact % Z-Contact %
April 27.7 71.7 57.9 72.7
May 28.8 72.7 48.8 76.8
June 27.6 76.0 41.4 78.3
July 27.8 77.6 36.2 74.8

Here’s something. Bryant is not failing at, as Joe Maddon likes to say, organizing his strike zone. He’s not chasing more, and he’s being more aggressive than ever on pitches within the zone. The problem might be mechanical: he’s simply swinging and missing on an untenable number of pitches outside the strike zone. As Scott Lindholm wrote here a fortnight ago, opposing pitchers have begun pounding the bottom of the zone against Bryant, and often, they’re even aiming below the zone, and away. Perhaps more and more of those offerings Bryant is chasing outside the zone are down at his shins and lower, to a space his swing is not designed to reach. That swing is already well-designed to punish those low pitches that stay knee-high or higher, so a little refinement, a little more stern a refusal to follow low breaking balls, might fix that hideous contact rate on chase pitches.

As far as explaining his broader struggles, though, this doesn’t give us much. It’s no surprise he’s striking out more, since he’s whiffing so prolifically on bad balls, but he’s not doing anything that helps explain his dampened BABIP. In the end, the best explanation for the primary driver of his recent frustration is bad luck, and the wisest expectation is that he’ll get back on the horse, more or less right away. Bryant is a great hitter, and he’s adjusting admirably to the big leagues. A rough patch shouldn’t alter expectations for him, even in the short term, especially absent evidence of a real change in process.

Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

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