Kris Bryant Is Still Getting Better

Maybe it’s the general lack of explosiveness on offense. Maybe it’s the low batting average. Maybe it’s the struggles of the team overall. Or maybe it’s the ankle injury that had some writing him off for far longer than just the two days he actually missed because of it. Regardless of the cause, it seems that some have lost perspective in truly appreciating how much of an impact player Kris Bryant actually is.

The point here isn’t going to be to talk about all of the things that Kris Bryant does well, mind you. Mostly because he does virtually everything well: he can swing it, he can field it, he can throw it. We all know that. But for a player who was hitting just .262 heading into Wednesday’s action, maybe it’s important to not only discuss where Bryant has experienced a wealth of success thus far in 2017, but also to discuss that he has actually shown significant growth in areas that represented shortcomings in his previous years at the big league level.

Kris Bryant’s line and underlying swing/contact trends are going to be the basis for illustrating that improvement. First, the statistics, with 2015 and 2016 figures added for context:

2015 650 .275 .369 .213 30.6 11.8 .317 5.9
2016 699 .292 .385 .262 22.0 10.7 .350 9.1
2017 343 .262 .391 .245 21.3 15.7 .311 3.4

Then, the swing and contact rates:

Z-Swing% O-Swing% Swing% Z-Contact% O-Contact% Contact% SwStr% BABIP
2015 73.4 28.4 48.9 75.0 41.4 64.4 16.5 .378
2016 72.9 29.1 48.8 81.2 52.7 71.9 13.0 .332
2017 71.3 24.2 45.3 84.5 55.0 75.8 10.5 .299

There’s a lot to digest here, so settle in. For one, it’s extremely encouraging that his on-base percentage has increased in each of these three years. Even coming off of a stellar year like had in 2016, he’s still managing a way to grow and improve that figure. Much of that has to do with his walk rate, which has not only jumped but done so by five full percentage points. His pitches per plate appearance have moved up from 3.86 last season to 4.03 P/PA thus far in 2017.

We have always known Bryant to have a good approach and awareness of the strike zone. It’s his ability to work deep counts that can be attributed to a fair amount of his punchouts. But that significantly increased walk rate and even the slightest reduction in the strikeout rate combine to be extremely encouraging elements of Bryant’s output.

Similar elements of positivity can be found in his swing and contact rates. He’s swinging just a touch less, but the improving contact rate is a wonderful development as a Kris Bryant who makes more contact is an even more dangerous entity at the plate. The combination of decreased strikeouts and whiffs with increased walks and contact is as good of evidence as any as to Bryant’s growth as a hitter.

Before the season began, there was one facet of his game that Bryant stood to improve, likely in addition to decreasing his strikeouts and increasing his ability to make contact: going to the opposite field. We touched on this during the exhibition season, and it’s a declaration on which Bryant has followed through. His Oppo% has increased a full six percent, leaping up to 25.7 percent for the year to this point.

And while he might have experienced a bit of regression in certain respects, he’s still performing at a high level in most of them. While his ISO has fallen from last year’s figure, it still ranks in the top five of an absolutely loaded third base group in the National League. His TAv and WARP have also decreased, but still rank fifth and second, respectively, among his Major League counterparts at the hot corner.

The one notable exception is perhaps the largest reason why the spotlight has drifted just the slightest bit away from Bryant: his batting average. At .262, he has obviously experienced a rather significant decline in that regard. That can largely be attributed to a BABIP of just .299, as Bryant has run into his fair share of bad luck. His soft contact rate is actually down from last season, but he isn’t barreling the ball up quite as often, as his hard contact rate has also seen a sizable drop, down from 40.3 percent to 29. Combine that with a GB% that has increased exactly five percent, to 35.7, and we can easily determine why he’s experienced such a dip in his BABIP.

So if there’s somewhere to be critical of Bryant, it’s right there. He’s just not making as hard of contact as last season, even if he’s making more of it. As for that element, it’s somewhat more difficult to ascertain exactly what’s causing it. His swing trends, while the percentages are down across the board, remain the same in terms of the type of pitches that he’s swinging at, and Brooks Baseball doesn’t have his zone coverage as being all that much different from last season either. It could very well be a timing issue, potentially brought on by that increased focus on going to the opposite field. That’s purely speculation, but we saw Anthony Rizzo go through some timing issues of his own earlier in the year, which affected his ability to make strong contact even if his approach and overall rates remained the same.

Even then, what Kris Bryant has managed to demonstrate in his continued development is more than encouraging. On the surface of a season where he’s hitting .262, it’s somewhat easy for a mainstream audience to scale back their attention each time he steps to the plate, but while he’s run into some bad luck this season, it’s hard to ignore the ways in which he’s improved.

Not only has Bryant followed through on his desire to take the ball to the opposite field with more regularity, he’s also improved what was already a quality approach. Walks are up, contact is up, strikeouts are down. That is absolutely a trend that you love to see for a player who’s already a bonafide superstar. Given what we’ve seen in the first two years, the expectation should be for him to return to harder contact and getting the ball in the air with more consistency. Once that happens, we’re talking about an unstoppable force at the hot corner for the Chicago Cubs.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports

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