In Part 1 of our conversation with Mike Bryant, we dispelled myths about the launch angle movement by establishing a few truths about what these players are and aren’t trying to do. The numbers we’ve all grown familiar with at this point are really just a product of trying to generate an upward plane with the bat.
So rather than saying, “I need to produce x launch angle,” hitters view it as “If I develop a swing that hits the ball in the air, I’ll get better results.” If that seems incredibly simple, that’s because it is. But when we backfill the process with all kinds of metrics and measurements, it’s very easy to lose the forest in the trees and to draw conclusions that simply aren’t accurate.
Not every player is the same, either, so approaches will vary along with personality and ability. You’ve got some players, like JD Martinez, who converted to launchianity well into their respective careers. Kris Bryant, on the other hand, was baptized into it at an early age and he’s been trying to hit the ball in the air since the time he was able to pick up a bat.
As a standard-bearer for the launch angle movement, Bryant is destroying some of the narratives about it, namely that guys who swing up are going to post big strikeout numbers. That’s not really the case at all, as having a swing plane with upward tilt actually keeps the bat in the zone longer and closely mirrors the downward tilt of a pitch. Ted Williams knew that and he preached the virtues of slight upswing in his own coaching.
Bryant (Kris, that is) has been compared to the Splendid Splinter more than once, which is some of the highest praise a hitter can ever receive. But he struck out more times in his rookie season (199) than Williams did in his first four seasons combined (196), which fueled some of the talk about launching and whiffing. We’ll get into more on that in our next episode, what’s important for now is Bryant’s freakish improvement when it comes to contact rate.
It’s borderline absurd how much better Bryant has gotten over the course of three-plus seasons and it’s all a matter of staying humble and staying hungry. He returns home each winter to work on adjustments to fill holes in his swing and to grow as a hitter. Which, again, seems like something really simple that every big leaguer should be doing.
Then again, not every big leaguer grew up with a Williams devotee crafting his swing. Bryant has improved at an incredible rate relative to his peers, so I wanted to ask his father about how he’s been able to do it. Is he simply more singularly talented than other players or is it a matter of being born into the culture and putting in the work?
The quick answers are yes and yes, but you’ll want to read on for the details. I found the stuff about the mental aspects of Bryant’s hitting approach particularly fascinating.
CI: Obviously Kris is a great example a guy who came into the league hitting the ball in the air. You look at a guy who has had abnormally, obscenely good increases in his contact rate. And now we’re seeing, especially over the last few games, the power is coming through.
He’s been able to do that at a time when strikeouts are increasing. Can you talk a little bit about how he’s been able to make some of those improvements in his contact while still being a proponent of getting that launch angle and getting the ball in the air?
MB: It’s a combination of two things. First of all, we work really hard in the off-season with a pitching machine at a high rate of speed, mid-90’s, trying to get to that arm slot early so that the bat gets in the zone longer. I know those sound like those are great words and we have to put teeth in them. So how do we do it? We had to get to specific positional technique in the swing, which I described earlier [in Part 1].
Getting that elbow tucked close to your ribcage behind you, not in front of you, and with the bat pointed at a 45-degree angle behind you, not towards the catcher. Then getting in the zone before you’re actually entering the zone. So you’re getting lined up to get in the zone early.
We work really hard in the off-season with a pitching machine at a high rate of speed, mid-90’s, trying to get to that arm slot early so that the bat gets in the zone longer.
Then keeping the hands at the top of the strike zone, so that they pass just below the letters [of the jersey]. And then not letting them drop down to your waist initially. Starting them with that position, and then as the swing unfolds, dropping the hands into position. That helps you hit all the breaking stuff, at least foul stuff off so that you keep yourself in the at-bat.
That’s where the improvement in the contact rate was. The other thing was just the mental part, to be able to — within 20 seconds, because that’s the time in between pitches — grasp that concept of creating a heightened state of awareness and being able to focus, trying to track the ball. Not just see the ball, but to track the ball, to see the spin off the hand.
That high level of concentration, that awareness level that you need to have as a hitter because if you let it down for a pitch, it’s enough to give away the at-bat. So those are the two main things that we worked on. It’s just an evolution of seeing time and time again, thousands of pitches over your career.
I told Kris this when he was young. As your professional career unfolds, a lot of the pitchers are going to start to all look the same. With the exception of a handful of pitchers, they’re going to have one or two pitches that just startle you a little bit. You have to really step it up to track that pitch a little bit better.
The other thing was just the mental part, to be able to…grasp that concept of creating a heightened state of awareness and being able to focus, trying to track the ball…Because if you let it down for a pitch, it’s enough to give away the at-bat.
The (Stephen) Strasburgs of the world when they’re going, (Max) Scherzers when they’re going, (Clayton) Kershaw with that one cutter when it’s going. Kris used to talk about Blake Wood, he was kind of a no-name reliever. He said, “Man, he had a heavy sinker.” He hadn’t seen one like that. You know, he had to really step it up to him. Those are the things that we worked on, and you know, Kris has really taken and run with it.
There’s always adjustments. He over-corrected (early in the season). Now he’s going to have to adjust back up, which he’s doing right now. You’ve seen, what, four home runs in the last seven games [this was prior to his homer in Atlanta]? He understands the importance of elevating.
CI: You referenced the A-Rod interview from Sunday Night Baseball earlier. I thought that was a fantastic insight into kind of Kris’s approach and it couldn’t have worked out any more perfectly. He’s talking about how his favorite pitch is a cutter or something that’s going to tail in about thigh-high right into the barrel of his bat.
So you talk about a guy who’s 6-5 and lanky and normally pitchers think, “Well, I can handcuff this guy, because he’s tall, long arms.” And yet, he loves those pitches. And the very next at-bat he has, Michael Wacha throws him that exact pitch, right in his wheelhouse. It’s like he couldn’t have set it up, he might as well have put it on a tee.
Following that, you and I had a brief conversation earlier this spring about trying to go to the opposite field when pitchers throw him outside. But his pull rate is higher this year [56.3%, nearly 10 points above previous career-high]. Is that a result of pitchers continuing somehow, stupidly, to throw him inside? Or is it just something different that he’s doing?
No righty hitter has been shifted more often than Kris Bryant.
He pulls everything on the ground and can't produce at all to the opposite field. Makes sense.
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) May 16, 2018
Ed. note: I don’t agree with the statement in the tweet below that Bryant “can’t produce at all to the opposite field,” because his production is more a result of how he’s been pitched than what he can do. That said, the data is worthwhile as context for the topic at hand.
MB: I was talking to Kris about the idea of “Look away, adjust in.” It’s “Look in, adjust away” when you get to the big leagues. You can’t look away and adjust in, so you gotta look for it inside. They’re pitching him inside all the time, I don’t know why. I think that the pitcher thinks or the other team thinks that Kris is thinking that he’s going to look away. It’s kind of backwards thinking.
Maybe it’s reverse psychology on the other team’s part, but they all seem to be pounding him in now. At one point, he was hitting like .529 on the inner third of the plate. Knowing a scouting report like that, why would pitch him inside?
The pitcher thinks or the other team thinks that Kris is thinking that he’s going to look away. It’s kind of backwards thinking.
The other thing, too, is just because he’s big and he his arms are four, five inches longer than the guy that’s 5-11 doesn’t mean he can’t hit the [inside stuff]. The swing is the swing. If you’re tight and your hands stay between the inside corner of the plate and your body, it doesn’t matter if you’re 5-5 or 6-5, you have that big-guy swing at that point.
I tell my guys all the time that I teach, it doesn’t matter how big you are. You’re going to hit home runs if you hit it hard and it exits your bat at a certain velocity and it leaves the bat at a certain angle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re 5-6 or 6-6. If it does that, you’re going to hit a home run. It’s that simple. Or you’re going to hit a gapper. So if you have the right swing, you’re going to be a slugger. That’s my approach.
Kris was tiny all his life, up until he was a sophomore in high school. He hit more home runs than anyone when he was in Little League and club ball. The bats weren’t juiced and all that stuff, he just figured it out at a young age that hitting the ball in the air was much more fun. That’s the approach I took: You want the game to be fun, hit the ball in the air. Every guy that comes through my, into my cage is taught that.
It doesn’t matter how big you are. You’re going to hit home runs if you hit it hard and it exits your bat at a certain velocity and it leaves the bat at a certain angle.
I say, “When you walk out of here today, you’re going to remember two things. You’re going to remember to hit it hard and hit it in the air. Then after that, you’re going to start learning.”
If you’re teaching someone how to hit, you better leave no doubt in their mind whatsoever what you’re all about as a hitting instructor. You think about it. I mean, (Joey) Gallo bought in the same way when he was young. He bought into the swing hard first and he never stopped, you know.
When you walk out of here today, you’re going to remember two things. You’re going to remember to hit it hard and hit it in the air. Then after that, you’re going to start learning.
CI: Do you think there’s a point at which we’ve got a lot of these young guys coming up with this understanding that it’s not just about taking some massive uppercut and try to wallop everything, but it’s about employing a process to hit the ball in the air and as you hone in on that, you can still keep high contact rates?
Will we see a correction where hitters do kind of reverse that trend and strikeouts start going back down, as these guys get more and more knowledge of what that bat path should look like and what that swing should feel like?
MB: I think it’s going to apply to certain hitters, the cerebral hitters. Those intelligent guys with the high IQ are going to figure it out. I don’t think everybody can. They’re in the major leagues because they have a skill set that’s superior to [other players]. And they can play and hang at the big league level. But the ones that excel and truly develop themselves into complete hitters, that’s a different breed of individual there.
But as far as overall, look, the pitching is just too good. When I was playing, the average fastball was like 89. Now the average fast ball is 93. That’s average. The teams are going to start realizing that once you get north of 95, contact rates go down significantly. You get up to 98, and it’s stupid.
It’s a rare situation where a team puts together a few hits in a row of a guy throwing 98. You get north of 100, and it’s nonexistent. I think that I heard the other day that when Kris got that double off Jordan Hicks, that was the first base hit so far this season on a pitch over 100 miles an hour.
I remember at one point, this was years ago, they said there were 214 pitches thrown over 100 miles an hour in the majors. They made contact with only 86 of them, when they swung. And of the 86 that they made contact, four were hits and all of them were singles. Come on, man. That tells you we’re not meant to hit 100 mile an hour fastballs. What’s next? What are teams going to do next?
And that brings us to a perfect stopping point, since our next segment will deal with the changing landscape of big-league pitching and how it has impacted strikeout rates. We’ll get into some thoughts on velocity and bullpenning and how hitters can (or can’t) counteract it.
As a point of reference, that hit Mike mentioned above came during the same at-bat from the May 5 game in St. Louis in which Bryant fouled a 101.5 mph pitch into Yadi Molina’s groin. After an injury delay, KB laced the next pitch, a 101.9 mph fastball, to left. And the pitch was on the inner third of the plate, just on the borderline with the middle, so he turned on it in a big way.
That particular hit, then, was a testament to what Mike discussed in terms of both looking in/adjusting out and to maintaining that heightened state of awareness and focus between pitches.