Kris Bryant is fourth in the National League and eighth in all of baseball with 3.6 fWAR, his stats are better in nearly every category than during his 2016 MVP campaign, and he’s coming off of his third All-Star appearance. That he’s done it all in the wake of a lost season in which he battled a shoulder injury that forced him to the IL twice and led some to question his long-term outlook should be cause for celebration, maybe even relief.
Except Bryant isn’t really feeling either of those as he embarks on what he hopes will be an even better second half. In fact, he’s not happy at all.
“I’m pissed,” Bryant told Sahadev Sharma ($) when asked about his performance so far. “I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done. I’m not happy with it. But I have to realize that I need to appreciate this. Not everybody has the numbers that I have right now or makes an All-Star team and is pissed about it. But that’s just who I am. It’s not good enough for me.”
He was pleased by the All-Star selection, calling it the “most special” of his career to this point, but that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied with what he did to get there. How much better could those career-best numbers he’s posted so far have been had he not slashed .230/.355/.420 with a 107 wRC+ through April? I guess the answer is the .327/.425/.613 and 168 he’s posted since.
That he’s not happy with elite numbers is a hallmark of his career to this point, a driving force behind constant adjustments and improvements that have made him one of the most complete hitters in the league since he debuted. Bryant used the word “pissed” no fewer than three times while speaking with Sharma, a sign that perhaps his old man’s Masshole patois may be rubbing off as surely as the lessons he’s passed on from Ted Williams.
Before we know it, the soft-spoken slugger may take the training wheels off and graduate to the kind of four-letter words that would earn him a PG-13 rating. Or maybe he’ll just stick with the “aw, shucks” rhetoric and keep letting his bat do the talking.
Expect that to be the case as Bryant gets the chance to do more damage against high fastballs with a more level swing built to produce less launch angle. Wait, what? Yep, the patron saint of Generation Launch Angle has dialed one of defining characteristics of his swing back to near league-average over the last month or so and his his production numbers have gone up in turn. So is this an indictment on the whole launch-angle thing?
Hardly, though detractors will certainly view it that way if they eventually figure out what Bryant is doing and offer hackneyed analysis of it. You see, the whole point has never been to go up to the plate looking to achieve a certain angle or exit velocity. Rather, Bryant and other modern sluggers have simply embraced the idea that the best course of action is to hit the ball hard and hit it in the air.
That means swinging with what Mike Bryant likes to call “upness,” which is exactly what Williams began preaching decades ago. As a result, pitchers have focused more and more on high fastballs that can exploit those hitters looking to get under pitches and pound them into the bleachers. A lanky slugger is going to be particularly susceptible to such a strategy, which is why Bryant has had to adjust.
While he’s still got room to grow in that regard, it’s pretty clear that he’s made significant strides against those high heaters and is starting to mash them just as he has other trouble pitches and spots over the years. It’s all part of the process for a cerebral hitter who, rather than reaching his ceiling and quitting, continues to raise the ceiling itself.
Because Bryant does that so smoothly and consistently, however, the general public often fails to take notice of it. Just like his aversion to dirty words and any rabble-rousing beyond the occasional row over a board game loss, this guy just doesn’t put up the flashy numbers that stand out in today’s game.
In this era of juiced balls flying out of ballparks in record numbers, his 17 home runs are utterly pedestrian. And spending most of the season in the two-hole behind a incongruous leadoff hitter who’s posted a .307 OBP has led to a measly total of 44 RBI through the first half. Ah, but what happens when he’s moved down in the order and those adjustments really take hold?
Well, Bryant’s numbers are going to go up. Just don’t expect him to be satisfied by that, since it only means he’s going to have to find something new to be pissed about. Which means something new to improve upon this winter. So go ahead and criticize Kris Bryant for what he’s not doing well right now, he’ll just make you look foolish pretty soon.