Kris Bryant: Most Improved (!) Player?

We’ve all been captivated by Kris Bryant in a number of different ways this season. His baserunning has been oustanding; he’s collected 4.3 BRR this year, good for 17th best in all of baseball. His athleticism and defensive versatility fit perfectly with Joe Maddon’s mad-scientist tendencies on defense. His defensive ability at third base has certainly been a pleasant surprise for me, as I worried early in his career that he may not be mobile enough to stay at the position long term. These things are all wonderful in isolation. When you combine them, you get the front-runner for the National League MVP. However, there may be another area that tells the most important story of Bryant’s brilliant 2016 campaign.

Coming into Bryant’s 2015 rookie season, any bits of caution regarding the ability of his game to translate to the major-league level centered around his elevated minor-league strikeout rates. The criticism wasn’t unwarranted, as his nearly 27 percent career rate and almost 29 percent clip at Triple-A suggested that he’d be joining rare company if he was to find success in the majors. This forecast held true as a rookie, as his whiff rate approached 31 percent, even while collecting 5.9 WARP and winning Rookie of the Year.

As usual for Bryant, just winning Rookie of the Year didn’t quite satisfy him, as he still recognized ways in which he could improve his game. He was outspoken about his dedication to making swing changes this season, in an attempt to flatten his swing plane (his previous uppercut was dramatic) while keeping his bat in the hitting zone longer. His desired results of this change were twofold: first, to lower his average launch angle, as he felt he flew out or fouled off too many good pitches last season. Second, to improve his contact rate, while lowering his strikeout percentage in the process. BP Wrigleyville’s editor, Rian Watt, wrote an excellent piece today detailing Bryant’s launch angle, and whether his swing changes directly correlate to his spike in home runs. For my part, I’d like to look at his contact rate, the second benefactor of Bryant’s effort to improve.

When reviewing Bryant’s selectivity, it’s interesting to note that he’s swinging at pitches both inside and outside of the zone with an almost eerily consistent rate as he did last season. For pitches outside of the zone, his 29.8 percent swing rate this year is an identical match to his rookie season. Inside the zone, he’s swinging at pitches 75.9 percent of the time, nearly matching his 76.2 percent 2015 rate. In total, his 48.9 percent swing percentage this year almost perfectly mirrors his 49 percent rate from last season. For the purposes of this exercise, this gives us an excellent platform to analyze whether it truly is his swing changes that have led to greater contact rates and higher on-base efficiency.

This is where it starts to get exciting. On pitches outside of the zone in 2015, Bryant made contact 49.2 percent of the time. This season, that number has skyrocketed to 60.6 percent. Inside the zone in 2015, he connected on 75.8 percent of swings. This year, that number jumped substantially to 81.2 percent. Overall, his contact rate jumped from 66.3 percent to 73.8 percent. It’s a lot of numbers to digest, but the takeaway is that Bryant made contact over 11 percent more often this year than last year. This in isolation is an incredibly significant improvement in a single season. It’s even more eye-popping when put in the context of swinging-strike percentage, where his number dropped from 16.5 percent last year to 12.7 this year. Yes, a 23 percent improvement year-over-year in the rate of strikes when Bryant graces us with his majestic stroke. If this hasn’t excited you yet, I haven’t done my job very well.

Now, after we’ve taken a moment to allow our heavy breathing to abate, let’s go over what this has meant from a results perspective. We now know that Bryant is making significantly more contact on all types of pitches, which means there are two things we need to know: first, is the quality of Bryant’s contact suffering in any way? Second, has this directly led to a reduction in strikeouts, and thus a higher degree of efficiency at the plate?

Bryant’s contact quality is a highly complex topic, and we could probably write several more pieces on that alone. The long and short of it is, he has reduced his medium quality contact from 47.4 to 40.8 this season, marking a rather dramatic reduction. 1.9 percent of that has been added to his soft quality contact column, an expected side effect of making contact more often. However, that still leaves room for a nearly five percent improvement in his hard contact rate. When you consider he’s making contact 11 percent more than last year, and combine that with a five percent jump in his hard contact, his 85 point (.488 to .573) jump in slugging suddenly comes into perfect focus.

His improvement in hard contact and slugging are impressive, but I don’t know that they are of historical consequence. However, his reduction in strikeout rate—from 30.6 last season to 21.6 this season—is of considerable historical relevance. Since 1900, here is the list of players (minimum 300 PA’s) that have improved their strikeout rate by nine percent or more from their rookie season to their second season:

Kris Bryant
Nelson Santovenia
Erv Dusak
Adolfo Phillips
Mike Schmidt
Chuck Hinton
Gibby Brack
Tony Clark
Eddie Taubensee
Bobby Higginson
Sam Chapman
George Springer
Tim Foli

That’s it. Only 12 other players in history have achieved the level of strikeout reduction Bryant has achieved this year. If you sort the list by players with a qualified number of plate appearances in each season, it shrinks to one: Kris Bryant. Following this logic, you could argue that Bryant has had the single greatest year-over-year reduction in strikeouts in major-league history. I think the swing changes worked.

Oh, the only player on that list that Bryant trails in total WARP (15.1 to 14.4): Michael Jack Schmidt. Bryant has 23 games to catch the three-time MVP.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.

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