Javy Baez is the Cubs’ MVP this season and there’s no argument to be made otherwise. But in order for Joe Maddon’s team to be truly dynamic, they need to have other hitters putting fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers. And when it comes to adding that extra oomph to give the Cubs a truly scary lineup, no one is more pivotal than Kris Bryant.
“I think just having him in the lineup changes the way the other team has to pitch to us,” Baez said after Monday’s game.
Nothing is more vital to Bryant’s success than the left shoulder that had been bothering him since mid-May. The issue wasn’t necessarily evident in real time, but it didn’t take long for statistical patterns and simple observation to agree that the heart of the Cubs’ order had an arrhythmia.
You can see that all too clearly in the below chart of Bryant’s game-by-game exit velocity numbers, which really do kind of mimic the output of a heart monitor. And while it’s futile to review the data from each individual game, you can clearly see an overall downward trend that begins with that little flatline around May 19, the date Bryant injured his wing.
As you’ve likely surmised, those longer flat streaks represent Bryant’s two stays on the DL, the most recent of which ended September 1. I know it’s still pretty compressed, but do you notice anything about the general trend being established this month? It’s moving in a decidedly positive direction, punctuated by a ball that left Bryant’s bat at 100 mph for his first home run since July 20.
The dinger and his two previous hits, both singles, all reached triple digits and all were hit to right field. That’s a positive sign and something that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, the man who knows Bryant’s hitting tendencies better than anyone actually told CI this would be the case back when the former MVP started taking public batting practice in late August.
“I like it,” Mike Bryant, Kris’s dad, said of the two-handed follow-through. “More oppo power.”
And while Bryant has not adhered strictly to keeping both hands on the bat all the way through, it’s clear that he’s shortened his stroke and isn’t finishing nearly as long with that left hand. But since he hadn’t showcased much power upon returning, which had some questioning his health and/or technique. Rather than anything structural or mechanical, however, the issue seemed to be more about timing.
“He’s fouling his pitch off, the pitch that he can really drive,” Joe Maddon said Sunday. “He’s just under it a little bit and it’s going straight back. Otherwise, he’s had some decent at-bats.”
My eyes told me the same thing and I wrote Monday that Bryant’s pinch hit in the Sunday’s loss was a good sign of things to come. He stayed on an outside fastball and drove it to right with authority, indicating improved timing and ability to both see the hard stuff and handle it properly. Sure enough, he did more of the same Monday night in Phoenix.
In order to prove to myself — and perhaps even you, Dear Reader — that I wasn’t just allowing wishful thinking to color my observations, I consulted Baseball Savant for Bryant’s batted-ball data. Because individual batted-ball events (BBEs) aren’t able to tell us much about greater trends, I grouped the available info into sets of 11 BBEs. Rather than an esoteric homage to Spinal Tap, this was a function of Bryant having 33 events since returning from his second DL stint.
And because it’s helpful to establish some context, I also included similar data for the periods leading up to each of Bryant’s trips to the DL. The chart below represents my findings, with data listed in chronological order. In the interest of full disclosure, the last data set prior to the second DL stint consists of only nine BBEs since there were only 31 total from July 11-23.
Take a look and we’ll meet back on the other side for some brief analysis.
The first thing that jumps out at me is is the obvious upward trend in every single category since Bryant returned earlier this month. Also note that his five batted balls of 100+ mph in this most recent sample are more than he had in 31 total events between DL stints and are equal to those in the 33 events prior to his first DL stint. And for what it’s worth, that most recent average of 88.2 mph is identical to his career mark.
Finally hitting a home run was a nice touch, as well.
“He clicked it to the right side,” Joe Maddon said to reporters about Bryant’s homer. “When we first saw him several years ago, that’s who he was. It’s always about feel, so hopefully he gains some feel from that. Before that, the line drive was properly struck, too.”
As I mentioned earlier, it’s worth noting that Bryant’s last three hits have all come to right. That long-awaited homer was only the 12th of his 106 career round-trippers that has gone out to the right of dead center, a pattern that has led even some of the brightest analytical minds to perpetuate the notion that he can’t do damage to the opposite field. But that is far more a function of necessity than it is ability.
Given his length, pitchers have continually (and stupidly) tried to bust Bryant inside with fastballs, which he has proven time and again he can turn on and pull. He hasn’t done much damage to right because he’s just taking what pitchers give him. Whether it’s an aberration or a concerted attempt to beat him outside now, Bryant has recently gotten a few fastballs on the outer portion of the plate and is using right field to greater effect.
Regardless of exactly how he’s doing it, the moral of the story is that Bryant is showing improvement and could continue to do so through the end of the season. If the Cubs were able to fend off the hard-charging Brewers for several months with their centerpiece incapacitated to some extent, just imagine what they’ll be able to do if he’s truly at full strength.