Unless you’re a Jeopardy contestant, you’ve probably heard of Kris Bryant. You may have even heard or read a little about how he worked to improve his approach and swing after his rookie year, making adjustments that led to a runaway MVP campaign. But not even the biggest Cubs honks have heard exactly what has gone into turning Bryant into the face of Major League Baseball.
Sure, Bryant has previously addressed some of these matters himself, telling the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales at the start of last year’s Spring Training that he needed to work on correcting a swing plane that was too steep. Not satisfied with an early career arc that has shattered historical aging curves, Bryant is back in Mesa with an eye toward further improvements. He spoke to Gonzales again in January about a desire to use the opposite field more than he did in 2016.
But the young slugger hasn’t really gotten too deep into the specifics of his annual offseason work. That said, we’re about to give you what we believe is easily the best insight into not only Bryant’s adjustments, but his overall approach as a hitter. What metrics does he pay attention to? What does he think about when he’s in the box? What’s next on the list of weaknesses to strengthen? What’s his ceiling?
Most guys, Bryant included, are going to spend some time in the cage to keep the rust off and tweak things during the winter. And when you’re the reigning MVP looking to find even the smallest improvements, it helps to have a dad who’s a former Red Sox farmhand and now works as a professional hitting instructor.
Mike Bryant takes a lot of pride in his work, and even more in his son, which is why he reached out to Cubs Insider after reading the Quick Hits piece linked above. The elder Bryant wanted to share the real scoop on his son’s adjustments, to explain how the two have worked together to leverage advanced tecnology and metrics in pursuit of the perfect trajectory for both batted ball and career.
Right from the start, you can tell that the apple may have rolled a little ways after falling from the tree. While Kris speaks in hushed tones and radiates an “aw, shucks” Vegas cool, Mike is all triple espresso Massachusetts gusto. I suppose KB just channels all that frenetic energy into the power transfer from body to bat to ball. And it’s in that swing, that still-evolving trademark of greatness, that father and son exist together.
In this, the first of a four-part series, Mike explains how he and Kris used data from Zepp Baseball’s 3D swing analyzer to improve swing plane heading into the 2016 season and how to hit against a shift.
Future installments will cover teaching philosophy, the younger Bryant’s ceiling, the adjustments he’s made heading into the 2017 season, and even what specific analytics he pays attention to. And if that’s not enough, we talk through Bryant’s rookie scouting report and how he was able to improve upon perceived weaknesses. You’re going to want to stick around for this whole thing, folks.
Ed. note: If you’re not into reading, we’ve got the audio file of this segment following the conclusion.
Cubs Insider: Hey, thanks for doing this. Definitely appreciate it.
Mike Bryant: Yeah, over the last year there’s been a lot of…I don’t want to say “hype” or anything, but everybody’s talking about Kris’s swing changes and it was all coming out different. Like when they say “leveling out of Kris’s swing.” He’s not leveling out the swing. People, they go, “See, the Cubs are fixing him. Bryant’s dad screwed him up.”
Like when they say “leveling out of Kris’s swing.” He’s not leveling out the swing.
This is the way they operate out here in Vegas. People in the know, know better. Let me tell you the basic change we made from his rookie year to last year. It was really simple: We worked really hard in the offseason at this. I use Zepp analytics, which measures pretty much all the angles in the swing.
What it measures, it has a 3D swing plane and it has two lines. It shows you a hand path and a barrel path and then it puts numbers to it — bat speed, time to impact, hand speed — and it’ll show you the vertical angle on the bat and the attack angle on the bat. The vertical angle, if you can visualize, if you hold the bad straight across the plate in front of you that would be zero and then if you point it straight down at the ground that would be 90.
When you’re measuring it through the zone it measures the vertical angle on the bat and if it’s too steep, you don’t have plate coverage. That number — most of the guys will operate with a good vertical angle so you don’t have the barrel above your hands — the barrel wants to be below your hands as it’s coming through the zone, so you have a positive angle. Most guys operate about 20 to 25. You look at guys like (Giancarlo) Stanton, he’s a little bit more flat. A guy like (Mike) Trout is a little bit more steep.
…if you point [the bat] down at 38 degrees you’ll create a hole in your swing on the outer part of the plate. Or you’ll have a hard time squaring up balls. We reduced Kris’s vertical angle through hard work from about 38 down to about 25 [degrees].
Kris is kind of more towards the Trout side, 38 degrees, and if you point it down at 38 degrees you’ll create a hole in your swing on the outer part of the plate. Or you’ll have a hard time squaring up balls because you’re just not coming in at a good angle because of the movement of the ball. So what you’re trying to do is match the bat path to the ball path best as you can. So we reduced Kris’s vertical angle through hard work from about 38 down to about 25.
MB: That’s significant. I mean, that’s huge. Kris, he had to really pay attention to what he was doing. He’s half-heartedly believing in the numbers that are coming off the Zepp analytics so I always kind of put that in the background with him. I teach him more to feel.
CI: He wasn’t buying into it right away. Is that what you’re saying?
MB: No, he’s always looked at it with skepticism. He’s bought into it. He buys into it now.
CI: Right, now he has. Yeah.
MB: He looks at the numbers and sometimes it felt a lot different than what the numbers would say. But we were moving in the direction of feeling it, which is what I was trying to accomplish: More feel. I use the numbers more than he does in my teaching, where he uses his instincts and his feel more than the numbers. So it was a great mix is what I’m trying to tell you.
…so it was about 6,000, 7,000 swings where I had a body of work to analyze it.
As an instructor you have to have a plan like that. So we worked diligently at that until I saw in the body of work over maybe, I don’t know, I’m going to say we did it for two and a half months. Say about 60 days, maybe 65 days, so it was about 6,000, 7,000 swings where I had a body of work to analyze it.
You could see it over a period of time, his swing was gradually getting there until finally he went down to Spring Training and he worked on it. We reduced his angle so he had more plate coverage. He didn’t reduce his attack angle, which is the way the bat comes up, the so-called “upness.” “Upness,” we’ll call it. He was still at an 18-degree launch angle, an average 18-degree launch angle.
Most of the home runs hit in the big leagues occur between 25 and 30. About 99% of balls hit out of the park are in that attack angle. Vertical angle, they don’t pay much attention to the vertical angle. What that does is if you’re too much vertical you have a lot of swing-and-miss in your game.
We reduced his angle so he had more plate coverage. (Kris) was still at an 18-degree launch angle, an average 18-degree launch angle.
So my goal was really simple: To reduce the swing-and-miss in the zone; to get him from chasing pitches out of the zone; and to hit more balls in the air. I want a higher ratio of balls in the air to balls on the ground. The results, they’re predictable, they’re reliable in that you’re not going to ground into many double plays, which he doesn’t.
And that he’s going to hit more balls in the air that, when he hits them hard, they’re going to be more home runs. It’s not like we’re trying to hit home runs. It’s really simple. The Ted Williams approach was to hit it hard and hit it in the air and then we figured out the angles in the swing.
It’s not like we’re trying to hit home runs. It’s really simple. The Ted Williams approach was to hit it hard and hit it in the air and then we figured out the angles in the swing.
We kept it really simple like that and they talk about him becoming that pull hitter. That definitely was not the case. That was a result of the fact that he was not chasing pitches out of the zone on the outer part of the plate. The pitcher, as a result, the pitcher’s going to come in. He’s not going to keep nibbling out there, he’s going to walk. He’s going to walk the guy.
…they talk about him becoming that pull hitter. That definitely was not the case. That was a result of the fact that he was not chasing pitches out of the zone on the outer part of the plate.
CI: I don’t know if you saw the zone profiles, but Kris talked about how a lot of the pitchers, as the year progressed and even early in the year, they were attacking him up and in with fastballs more than previous years. There’s no choice for him but to pull his hands through and pull the ball. It’s not like he’s making a conscious effort, it sounds like, to pull the ball. It’s just he’s taking what he’s being pitched at, right?
MB: That’s exactly right because in the minors they never came in. It was the opposite in the minor leagues.
CI: And he hit most of his homers to the opposite field in the minors.
MB: Yeah, 27 of his 43 (home runs in 2014) went to the right of center. What they would do is opposite in the minors. They would come in off the plate and try to throw a strike on the outer third of the plate and they would just say, “Hey, look, he’s not going to pull the ball,” because they think that’s where all his power is. They learned otherwise, that he was punishing any type of mistakes in the zone, especially the zone in the outer half of the plate.
I subscribe to FanGraphs and they’re awesome in what they do and I think the analytics are awesome. They’ve helped me incredibly.
It’s different in the big leagues, plus they had another pitch to deal with, a fourth pitch. Looking at it in the analytics and the sequencing, you know what pitches and then the locations. I was looking at the pattern like that. I subscribe to FanGraphs and they’re awesome in what they do and I think the analytics are awesome. They’ve helped me incredibly.
Ted said, “What shift?” He said, “I don’t care about shifts.” The way he beat the shift is to hit it in the air.
Just like defensively, they do the shift. Everybody thinks the shift is like…you know, it is good and it does certain things and it takes away a lot of hits. But Ted Williams used to say…they shifted Ted Williams, you know. Ted said, “What shift?” He said, “I don’t care about shifts.” The way he beat the shift is to hit it in the air.
CI: Yeah, hit it over the shift.
MB: Yeah. We get away from the philosophies: You don’t go hitting the top of the ball; barrel above your hands. Everybody thinks this is a new modern way to hit. It’s not. Ted Williams was talking about this years ago. In 1980 with the Red Sox, I used to talk to him. I worked with him for a couple years in Spring Training and nobody was listening to the guy. That’s the problem.
I mean, everybody was like, “Well, he’s a freak of nature. He used to win in a different way and he hits .400.” They just want to ignore what’s right in front of them. And now you’re seeing (Josh) Donaldson and J.D. Martinez and all these guys are showing up on the scene doing what Ted Williams has been teaching for years. They’re listening.
If you like what you’ve read so far, we’ll have a new section of the interview each day for the next three days. Come back to check out the rest of what Mike had to share. And if you’re not into reading, we’ve got the audio clip of this segment here for you. Future clips will be posted along with the accompanying text, and we will also be releasing the full version of the interview at the conclusion of the series.