Position: Third base, with a little outfield sprinkled in for good measure
2015 Stats: 151 G, 650 PA, .275/.369/.488, .317 TAv, 6.2 WARP
Year in Review: My father likes to tell stories. Tales of when he was he was in the army, medical school, his cricket-playing days, and how he developed a love of baseball when he first came to this country. When I was younger, I’d roll my eyes and tune out after hearing a story for what felt like the hundredth time. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to realize that there was a reason my father told these stories so frequently: they had meaning, and there was a lesson to be learned.
And as a father now, I find myself repeating stories or important messages quite often. It’s not just with my kids, but in my writing as well, and of course there’s a reason. I’ll often discuss fastball command as a key when talking about pitchers, especially those without overwhelming stuff. Preparation and developing a routine are things that Paul Konerko hammered home to me whenever I interviewed him; it’s what helped him turn around what was looking like a disappointing career in his younger days, and it’s an aspect I see help many young players adjust to life in the big leagues. And of course, there are adjustments. And when it comes to adjustments, there’s no young player I’ve been more impressed by than Kris Bryant.
Bryant faced many challenges in his initial season in the bigs, but came out on top after nearly every one. He struggled mightily in July, and Matt Trueblood suggested it may be due to a mechanical issue. Around that same time—early August—I talked to Bryant about his issues with adjusting to the low strike, something he admitted was impeding his success. But after posting a .338/.440/.662 line for that month, KB had clearly figured things out, with both his mechanics and the low strike.
One of the first things Bryant had to learn to adjust to in the big leagues was nasty changeups, particularly from right-handed pitchers. Here’s how his first at-bat in the big leagues ended:
Bryant whiffed on a nasty James Shields change, and one of his biggest weaknesses was exposed just three pitches into his big-league career. Below is how Bryant fared each month against changeups from right-handed pitchers.
|Month||CH SEEN||ABs ENDED||Ks||BA||SLG||SWING%||WHIFF/SW%|
It appears that Bryant made an adjustment in June and the league adjusted back by not throwing him changeups very often the rest of the way. However, it’s possible it was an over-adjustment by the league. What’s interesting is that righties all but abandoned the change against slugging third baseman, but oddly enough, 14 of those 31 September/October changeups came in four October regular season games and Bryant went hitless against them.
In the playoffs, against the Pirates and Cardinals, Bryant didn’t see a single changeup from a righty. But the Mets must have seen something—possibly in those final few games in October—and a team that exposed the Cubs every miniscule weakness during their four games had their righties attack Bryant with seven changeups. The 12.7 percent changeup rate he saw from northpaws in the four games against New York was a 50-percent jump from what he saw from righties in the regular season. It was a gameplan that initially worked against Bryant, and the first six he saw he did nothing with. But with the seventh, however, he did this:
“The guy doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses, but in the Mets series, they attacked him with a lot of right-on-right changeups,” Theo Epstein said soon after the Cubs season had ended. “The numbers show that maybe he hadn’t adjusted to this pitch yet. Well, they got him out a few times with it. He made a great adjustment and by his last at-bat of the 2015 season he took a right-on-right changeup and hit it 400 feet for a home run. That’s an incredible learning experience for him going into next year. It’s growth.”
Looking Ahead: Growth. For a player who compiled 6.2 WARP, was the runaway Rookie of the Year, and arguably the most valuable position player on a 97-win team stacked with elite talent on offense. That has to be a scary thought for the opposition. Bryant’s other-worldly ability to adjust makes Epstein’s talk of growth—both in the near and long-term—as a very real possibility, nay, a likelihood. It wasn’t just the changeup, the low strike, or mechanical tweaks; Bryant improved from the season’s start to October significantly on defense. Numerous scouts and front office personnel talked to me about how his footwork and throwing motion looked quite a bit better in September and the playoffs compared to what they saw in the minors and the first few weeks of the season.
Asking for Bryant to improve upon his 30.8 percent strikeout rate (and 16.5 percent swinging strike rate) may be a bit much. It doesn’t deviate much from the 26.6 percent strikeout rate he posted in the minors. But even if he can’t improve upon the strikeouts it’s not as if they’ll keep him from performing at an MVP level, he was nearly there in his inaugural year. However, perhaps there isn’t a request Bryant can’t deliver upon. You’ve heard the story before, and with Bryant, none of us should be surprised if you hear it again. He’ll adjust.
Lead photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports