Kris Bryant’s Latest Challenge: Adjusting to the Low Strike

There are plenty of buzzwords in baseball. We’ve all heard them, and in all likelihood, we all use some of them. One that I hear more than almost any other when talking to players and coaches in the clubhouse is ‘adjustments.’ Whether it’s a guy like Andrew McCutchen weathering an early season slump, Jason Kipnis bouncing back from a rough 2014 with an insane hot streak, or a rookie like Addison Russell changing his mechanics, adjustments appear to be a key. It’s more than just some word that’s thrown around in baseball conversations; it’s a reality, something that’s essential for a player to achieve sustained success at the highest level.

Currently, Kris Bryant appears to be in the process of making one of those key adjustments. After wrapping up the first three months of the season with a .275/.381/.466 line, Bryant struggled in July, posting a .639 OPS and 33.3 percent strikeout rate (both his worst for any month). If you’re familiar with Bryant, you know that he’s a student of the game, especially hitting, and prides himself on his ability to make these important adjustments.

But making those adjustments in the big leagues is a bit different than in the minors and college, where Bryant was able to quickly fix any issues that popped up. As the calendar approached August, I asked Bryant what the biggest difference he’d noticed between the majors and other levels.

“I just think the pitchers are less likely to make a mistake,” Bryant responded. “They hit their spots pretty good—working the corners, making it hard on us. When you do get that pitch just over the plate, you really have to do damage on it. You can’t really foul it off and then expect another one later in the at-bat like you could maybe at the lower levels. There’ve been times where I’ve gotten that pitch and I’ve crushed it and there have been times where I’ve missed it. It’s just a battle with myself to realize that you have to take each at-bat, stay focused and really have that sense of awareness that that mistake pitch may be coming at any time.”

I then followed up by asking if Bryant had noticed a different strike zone compared to what he saw in the minors.

“It’s hard to say. Maybe a little bit,” Bryant said, but quickly followed up, being sure not to rip umpires in the process. “But everybody makes mistakes, we’re all human. We swing at pitches in the dirt, umpires miss calls; I think that’s what makes the game so great sometimes.”

And while Bryant said he’s only noticed ‘a little’ difference in the zone, the fact is, the zone expanded significantly last year, and in the season’s first two months, that trend continued. According to some scouts I talked to, the low strike that we’re seeing in the majors isn’t being called in the minors. Front office members from around the league confirmed to me that they have data to back up this assertion. Many who I spoke with pointed to elite framers—who mostly reside in the big leagues—giving rise to the low strike.

When I pointed this out to Bryant, he quickly agreed.

“I definitely have noticed that,” Bryant said. “For myself, just being a tall guy, I’d like to see the higher strike called instead of the low one, because you have more of a chance to hit it. Just the angles of the ball coming down lower in the zone with my bat having to get down low too, it’s just makes it really difficult for the taller guys and the bigger guys. But I don’t really follow along with that stuff, I just go out there and try to get a sense of what the umpire calls and establish and approach based on that and who’s on the mound, stuff like that.”

He’s clearly not about to make any excuses for his struggles, but Bryant is certainly aware that this is where the next adjustment in his career must take place. What makes this adjustment a little more difficult for him is that he’s already had to make it. In college, Bryant had a more upright stance, but eventually he noticed that at 6-foot-5, he was having trouble handling pitches low in the zone. Bryant adjusted by widening his stance and the change worked wonders. But now, pitches he’s never seen called strikes before are forcing him to change the way he perceives the strike zone, not only leading him to have to try and correct a weakness he already thought he’d fixed, but apparently change his definition of a strike.

“It’s making things a little harder, maybe I need to widen up even more,” Bryant said with a smile. “It just makes it a little tougher on me just to get to that low pitch. The pitcher can’t throw it there every time, so I have to be ready for the ones that are up a little bit more. But that low pitch is really hard to hit right now and I think everybody in this clubhouse will tell you the same thing.”

The difference between Bryant and others in the clubhouse is that none of them are 6-foot-5 rookies who are seeing the low strike called for the first time in their career. Below, we see how often Bryant has either swung at or had a pitch in the lower sixth of the zone or below (which would technically be outside of the zone and a ball) called a strike.

Month Percent Called Strike Percent Swung
April 12.7% 36.3%
May 11.1% 33.3%
June 11.5% 35.4%
July 14.8% 31.7%

What’s interesting is that Bryant laid off the low pitch at his highest rate in July and it was called a strike at the highest rate, by far, of any month of his young career. He’s attempting to learn this new zone, but of late he’s struggling. And the trend for opposing pitchers is clear.

After April, pitchers are clearly pounding the lower part of the zone against Bryant with regularity.

“It’s tough because maybe early in the at-bat you see a low strike called that you think is not there,” Bryant said. “And then later in the at-bat you have to swing at that because you don’t want to put it in the umpire’s hands. So, for myself, it might have led to some chasing down in the zone, but that’s something I’ve got to live with and I need to learn how to deal with it and learn how to make the adjustments accordingly.”

As Bryant points out, he’s seeing pitches he thinks are low called a strike and that’s leading him to swing at pitches that may be even lower in the zone later in the those at-bats. The numbers bear that out. Let’s look at the same table from above, but add two more columns: after Bryant sees a pitch in the lower sixth of the zone or below called a strike, how often does he swing in a) that same at-bat? b) that same game?

Month Percent Called Strike Percent Swung Percent Swung in Same AB Percent Swung in Same Game
April 12.7% 36.3% 33.3% 33.3%
May 11.1% 33.3% 32.3% 33.6%
June 11.5% 35.4% 33.3% 36.9%
July 14.8% 31.7% 38.2% 34.7%

When we look at this table, we see that the low strike doesn’t appear to have much of an impact on Bryant in the first three months of the season. However, in July, it seems to have confounded him. He’s attempting to (and more often than not, succeeding) lay off the pitch. However, when it’s called a strike (which has happened at the highest rate for him in July), he’s swinging at it more often—both in the same game and in the same at-bat.

One of the skills that Bryant has earned the most praise for is his knowledge of the strike zone. Now that the strike zone has physically been changed for him, he’s being presented with the biggest test thus far in his career. However, his manager, Joe Maddon, is hardly concerned that Bryant would be unable take this challenge head on and overcome it.

“This whole game is about making adjustments,” Maddon said. “That’s what we do here daily. You have to make adjustments based on umpires on a daily basis, on how well you feel, on everything. It literally is a game of adjustments.”

Maddon said he wasn’t worried about Bryant figuring things out quickly, all he needed to do was determine where that bottom of the zone is for umpires in the big leagues and things would quickly click for the talented third baseman. Bryant’s uncanny ability to properly perceive the strike zone was elite before and not many doubt he’ll be able to get to that level again. But even Bryant knows it won’t be an easy task.

“Baseball’s a tough game, it’s really hard,” Bryant stated plainly. “But I think whether it’s a low strike or whatever, you might not get the results you want all the time, but that time you do get it makes up for all the times that you didn’t. I think it’s just a process, a cycle that all of us go through and deal with.”

Dealing with the low strike isn’t a challenge that’s unique to Bryant, but his height, inexperience at the highest level, and the fact that he’s already had to adjust to the issue once before in his career does make this a little more complex. Whether Bryant can overcome this latest trial is yet to be determined, but there are few who would bet against him. It really can’t be said enough, it’s just another adjustment that must be made in a game filled with them.

Thanks to Rob McQuown with assistance on research for this piece.

Lead photo courtesy of Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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