If You’re Worried About Kris Bryant Because He’s Kris Bryant, Just Remember…He’s Kris Bryant
The downside of being so incredibly good at something that you win awards for your performance and millions are aware of your exploits is that that criticism comes quicker when expectations aren’t met. Not even a month into the season and the comments following a Kris Bryant article resemble a pack of vultures circling fresh carrion.
But reports of Bryant’s death, like those of Mark Twain and Paul McCartney before him, have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, he’s batting just .230 with a 95 wRC+ and doesn’t seem to be able to turn on fastballs — .250 AVG, .386 SLG — like he has in the past, but we’re only talking about 87 plate appearances. And it’s not as though this is the first time we’ve seen the lanky slugger suffer through a power outage.
Though he’s grown too much as a hitter to make direct comparisons between the Bryant we see today and the fresh-faced kid who still had salt in his hair from the San Diego sea breeze, that rookie year does bear looking at. Specifically, I’m talking about the three-plus weeks it took KB to hit his first big league homer. I’ll admit to cherry-picking just a little bit, but the sample matches up pretty closely with this season so far.
Beyond that, I believe the two periods have quite a bit in common from a psychological standpoint. Bryant was a heralded rookie in 2015, expected to shoulder the weight of the Cubs’ burgeoning turnaround with his prodigious power and startling baby blues. And that he did, just not at first. The strikeouts came in bunches, but the power did not. Bryant was pressing to find his timing and adjust to the game’s best pitchers.
Jump to the present and you’ll find a hitter in much the same bind despite all the accolades he’s collected between now and then. It may sound weird, but I think it makes more sense when you really start to view it with a wide lens. Bryant was on pace for what would have easily been the best season of his career prior to hurting his shoulder in mid-May last year, then things fell apart.
Between two extended IL stays (though it was still the DL at the time) and swing changes necessitated by lingering shoulder pain, Bryant was unable to establish a rhythm at the plate. It wasn’t just that his power was sapped, his timing was all wonky as well. Then you throw in all the talk of urgency and his role as the team’s union rep at a time of acrimony between parties and you can imagine how Bryant is perhaps being pulled in different directions.
The result is a hitter who’s still seeking that true north at the plate, a comfort level at which he’s able to both predict and discern pitches while firing into that poetic swing with clean mechanics. He’s very clearly not there yet, though it seems as though a little tweak and some good fortune could set things to rights in a hurry. Bryant has been swinging through a lot of pitches he should mash, sometimes just beating them into the ground.
That could well be a result of his hand path being a little too steep, a flaw that opens a hole in the swing and has him coming under too many pitches. An increase in groundball rates would seem to contradict that, but it’s possible that faulty timing and suboptimal vertical angle is leading Bryant to top too many pitches and generate worm-burners. He was also lunging into his swing ($) almost like what we’ve seen from Jason Heyward, whose duck-and-dive move has produced a lot of grounders over the years.
But just for shigs and gittles, let’s say two more of Bryant’s batted balls fall in, like maybe the sure triple Melky Cabrera snow-coned and the ball flagged down by Isaac Galloway that would have been a homer in probably all 29 other parks. Okay, maybe a double off the wall in San Francisco. Just those two hits would have Bryant slashing something like .257/.378/.460 and no one’s penning letters to Cubs beat writers asking when it’s okay to start worrying.
Bryant is pulling the ball just as frequently as ever and his soft contact is lower than it’s ever been, so a lot of it comes down to an increase in grounders. That’s fine for Little League, but you need to elevate those into hard line drives in order to clear the infield and shoo the vultures away.
Same for his whiffs and strikeouts, neither of which is inordinately higher than in any previous season. In fact, both numbers are lower than in any season than 2017, which should be reason for encouragement. We’ve just grown so used to Bryant getting better every year than the failure to do so this year is cause for concern. Which is where we get back to that rookie season.
Once he popped that first dinger and removed the monkey from his back, he went one to smash six more homers in the next 16 games. The same could easily happen this season. It’s obvious that Bryant is struggling with his timing and that he’s searching for that comfort zone at the plate in which he knows without even thinking about it that he’s got a chance to do something special. And while I’m not saying his confidence is gone, I am saying that he appears to be fighting himself a little bit up there.
Getting out of that and back to the KB we’ve grown used to isn’t as simple as initiating one tweak or getting one hit to drop. More than likely, it’ll be a gradual process that sees his numbers creep up over a period of days or weeks until we suddenly realize that he’s pretty much back to normal. Except that Bryant getting back to normal means hitting the kind of home runs people are going to notice pretty quickly.