“Yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.”
That’s the most famous line spoken by Keanu Reeves as John Wick, star of the eponymous shoot-em-up movie franchise. So it’s quite fitting that John Wick 3: Parabellum was released on the same evening Kris Bryant launched three parabolas into the seats at Nationals Park.
Yeah, I’m thinkin’ he’s back.
Not only did Bryant hit a trio of dingers, he did so in consecutive innings Friday night to become only the second Cub to accomplish that feat. The other, as you may already know from the broadcast, was Sammy Sosa. Or Sammy Sooser if you prefer Ted Kennedy‘s version. Either way, it’s the kind of transcendent badassery you don’t see very often.
And it all started with an axe. Or rather, an Axe Bat.
Bryant had only hit one home run, all the way back in the first game of the season, while swinging a traditional stick. But when Wonderboy’s bat broke in Arizona on April 26, he needed to pick out a winner. So he reached for a weapon many had considered little more than a novelty when Dustin Pedroia first started swinging it four years ago.
The Axe Bat has a contoured handle shaped like that of, well, an axe, which can feel more comfortable for some users. Ted Berg wrote about the revolutionary bat when it was discovered that Pedroia was swinging it a few years ago.
The Axe Bat was designed and patented by Baden after a New York woodworker named Bruce Leinart presented them with the idea upon noticing how much more comfortable his hands felt while swinging an axe than they did while swinging a bat with a traditional knob. A biomechanical study published last April found that the oval-shaped handles increase swing efficiency and control and reduce some of the hand and wrist injuries typically associated with swinging.
Other hitters have tinkered with it in the time since, but widespread adoption of anything different — especially in a staid sport like baseball in which equipment changes are more like evolution or plate tectonics — takes time. Even getting a hitter to change to a different type of wood or a new color can be a chore, so bat companies send demos for them to test out.
Such was the case for Bryant with Axe Bats. He’d swung them in the cage and during BP, but wasn’t comfortable using them in a game until being forced to. More than just additional comfort, which is certainly subjective, the tapered knob better fits the hand — good for players who’ve had hamate issues — and helps a hitter to get into better mechanics.
“There’s a lot of science behind it,” Bryant said in May when it was discovered that he was using the new style. “How the bat naturally comes through the zone, how it falls into the zone. You don’t have to work for it. I like the idea behind it.”
Getting the bat through the zone properly was a problem for Bryant early in the season, when he was swinging through pitches he should have crushed. His hand path was too steep and his timing was off, leading to a lot of whiffs and poor contact. And when he did get good wood on the ball, it seemed to be right into a defender’s glove.
He was on the cusp of really making something happen, putting up the kind of production not seen during even his MVP season, but he needed a spark. The catalyst for what we’ve seen over the last three weeks or so may have been a broken bat, since he may not have made a switch just for the hell of it. Now, it’s possible this whole this whole thing is Dumbo’s feather, a placebo that’s helping Bryant’s mind more than his mechanics.
His hitting coach believes there’s a real benefit to the bat, though.
“I love the Axe Bat,” Anthony Iapoce told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. “It aligns your knuckles. Forces your knuckles to be aligned and creates the right angle of the barrel above the head.”
Of course, anyone who knows anything about Bryant’s swing can tell you who crafted it. His father, Mike, coaches hitting with advanced application of time-tested techniques and is all about getting hitters to understand how a proper swing should feel. He’s a huge proponent of launch angle, but not the in robotic application of numbers to live results.
Rather, it’s about getting a hitter to understand where the links of his particular kinetic chain need to be in order to produce optimal results. The Axe Bat, he says, is a big part of that.
“It creates feel so that the barrel gets on path early and gets the top hand under the bottom hand as it enters the hitting zone,” the elder Bryant told CI. “The knob gives that ‘feelback.'”
That might sound a little hokey if you don’t know any better, but it’s impossible to look at Bryant’s results since changing bats and brush aside the notion that the handle helps. Although it’s possible the borderline superstar is getting some residual power from the bat he stole from Cody Bellinger when the Dodgers came to down just before the Cubs.
Bryant explained after his monster performance in Washington that he’d “borrowed” some of Bellinger’s lumber and just been carrying it around and hitting a little BP with it. In true aw-shucks fashion, KB left a note to explain the theft and let Bellinger know how big a fan he was.
But back to those numbers, which have been good enough to answer any questions about the health of Bryant’s shoulder or the even less plausible concern that an HBP to the dome was having residual effects. Even if we exclude Friday’s results, Bryant has slashed .299/.435/.701 with a .461 wOBA, 193 wRC+, seven homers, 18 RBI and 19 runs scored since April 26.
In those 85 plate appearances, he has drawn 16 walks (18.8%) against only 13 strikeouts (15.3%) while displaying power and finesse to all fields. All things considered, Bryant is performing as well at the plate as we’ve ever seen.
Throw in the big game and you’ve got a .329/.451/.822 slash with .506 wOBA and 222 wRC+ in 91 plate appearances. Oh, and he’s doing that with a .280 BABIP that sits 65 points below his career average heading into this season. That should scare the poop out of opposing pitchers because it means they’re currently getting the benefit of more good fortune than usual when facing Bryant.
Folks, what if he gets back to that .345 BABIP? I don’t even want to allow my mind to go there. We’re already seeing an offensive performance that is on pace to far exceed his MVP season, and that’s with the aforementioned slump weighing more heavily on the numbers than it will by September.
A bat is only as good as the person swinging it, but it’s entirely possible that an equipment change gave Bryant the necessary feelback to get his game back to where he wanted. Or close to where he wants, since he’s got room to get better yet.
Ed. note: Bryant’s recent performance is probably resulting in some mutual benefits for Axe Bat, since I can guarantee you their sales are up over the last couple weeks. Mookie Betts and George Springer use them too, but having KB bust out like this is a pretty solid bit of marketing.
Heck, I bought one for my son and he immediately took to it despite it being 2 oz. heavier than his other bat. You know, I wonder if they’d be interested in the kind of publicity they could generate by having an out-of-shape 40-year-old blogger using one of their slowpitch softball bats.