Kris Bryant Has Become One of MLB’s Best Hitters on the Road

Forget Hawk and Animal or Mad Max, Kris Bryant is a real road warrior. And not just because he’s the only one among that group who’s not a dated pop culture icon. No, Bryant is answering loud and clear the questions of his ability to perform away from Wrigley.

Though it seems silly now, that was a pretty common worry last season when the Rookie of the Year slashed .243/.333/.360 with only 5 home runs and a wRC+ of just 94 on the road. Not bad…for a journeyman bench bat. Buoyed by a monster line of .311/.408/.629 with 21 homers and a 181 wRC+ at home, the numbers balanced out in the end.

Yeah, that’s great and all, but is he going to be able to hit on the road?

I mean, if you consider .314/.405/.629 with a 170 wRC+ to be hitting on the road. Wait a minute, that’s almost exactly what he hit at Wrigley last year. As you might imagine, the script has flipped in that regard. Bryant is hitting only .230/.322/.492 at the Friendly Confines, though the aggregate offensive measure of wRC+ is 117.

But where the difference in his performance really stands out is in the power numbers. After taking fellow former ROY Jacob deGrom deep in what proved to be the Cubs’ only real bright spot Friday, Bryant moved into a tie for the MLB home run lead with 23. It was also his league-leading 14th home run on the road and helped to pad his leads in road runs (39) and RBI (41).

So where’s this massive improvement coming from? Bryant has made big strides in his plate approach this season, illustrated by his contact rates (up) and swinging-strike rate (down). He’s walking a little less, striking out a lot less, and — as I had assumed before the season started — he’s not benefiting from nearly as much luck as he got last year.

Bryant’s BABIP is 73 points lower, yet his actual batting average is four points higher. That’s kind of odd, huh? We already saw that his contact rates are better (71.5% vs. 66.4%), but it’s where and how Bryant is hitting that’s making all the difference. The homer he hit Friday night is a perfect example, coming as it did on an inside fastball. Bryant absolutely yanked it into the second deck out in left, something he’s been doing with more regularity this season.

Bryant’s pulling the ball at a much higher rate in 2016 (48% vs. 41.6%) and he’s also got his line drive percentage up just a tick from last season. Likewise, he’s seen an increase in hard-hit balls and a corresponding decrease in those with only medium contact. So not only is the sophomore making more contact, he’s squaring the ball up with regularity. And home runs don’t count toward BABIP since, you know, they’re not in play.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but you still haven’t gotten around to the inversion of his home/road splits from last season to this.

Huh, yeah, you’re right. Um…you got me there. If we were just isolating it to the improvement, I’d theorize that it has something to do with growing accustomed to the travel schedule and the grind of the MLB season. Maybe it took Bryant a while to settle into that lifestyle. That, however, would seem to fall flat in the face of his numbers in the place he should seem most comfortable.

The Cubs have actually been slightly better as a team on the road, slashing .263/.348/.447 with a 111 wRC+ vs. .242/.347/.413 with a 104 wRC+ over sample sizes that are close enough to be comparable. Still, I don’t see how we can directly tie these differences to Bryant’s.

Maybe, and I’m really getting out onto a limb here, it’s a matter of baseball being a game with far too many variables and far too much data to get a definitive answer sometimes. I don’t intend that to be a cop-out, just that I’m saying this could be an aberration of data that will continue to move toward more level performance over time. One year, the home split is better. Next it’s the road. After that, things probably even out.

And isn’t that what’s important anyway, that the totals end up in a good place? Looking to splits in an effort to split hairs about a player’s performance can get a little dangerous. Like the person lamenting Bryant’s inability to hit with runners in scoring position, a situation in which he’s actually batting .276 with 5 homers and 36 of his 61 RBI. Okay, fine, maybe he wilts when he’s got men in scoring position with two outs. Sorry, still .276 with 3 homers and 13 RBI.

What began as me simply pointing out that Kris Bryant has been really, really good on the road turned into me chasing my tail trying to find out why. Now I’m just dizzy and I didn’t have an answer. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Simply saying that this kid is awesome and that he just happens to have some weird splits this season is more than enough for me.

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