It’s hard to find flaws in a guy who was named the near-unanimous NL MVP and who led his team to its first World Series title in over a century, but the one knock on Kris Bryant was that he had become almost exclusively a pull hitter. Exhibit A in this argument was that only one of his 39 home runs was hit to the right of center, with a majority of the remaining (see black dots on chart below) bombs heavily concentrated between the foul pole and the left-center power alley.
What’s more, Bryant batted only .180 on balls hit to the opposite field, a serious departure from the .271 average — not to mention five of his 26 home runs — he posted in his rookie campaign. Even those 2015 numbers stand in stark contrast with his minor league performance the previous season, in which 27 or 28 of his 43 home runs were hit to the opposite field.
Fear not, Cubs fans, this is all part of the plan.
The results have been driven largely by pitchers’ adjustments to a superior hitter and that superior hitter’s subsequent changes to stay ahead of the curve, both literally and figuratively. Bryant has worked diligently each offseason with his father, Mike, a former Red Sox farmhand and a hitting instructor by trade, to refine his swing and approach in order to avoid stagnation and promote growth.
“It was a pitch away, and instead of just getting singles on those or whatever, I want to be able to hit those over the fence,” Bryant told Carrie Muskat. “It’s what I’ve done in the past and it’s coming back to me.
“If I can continue to improve and cover all areas of the strike zone, it gives me a whole lot of confidence heading up to the plate. Hopefully, I get a couple more pitches out there and hit them.”
Sounds simple enough, but in order to truly grasp what Bryant is doing we first need to look at what he has done. Long is the list of guys who looked like world-beaters at one stop only to be utterly confounded when they moved up or when pitchers figured out how to exploit their weaknesses. Whether it’s Little League or high school or double-A, you must be able to adapt to the game along the way.
Little is more illustrative of that fact than Bryant’s swing, which has undergone quite the metamorphosis in the time since his days at Bonanza High School. Back then, he employed a more upright, open stance with a noticeable stride. He carried that with him to the University of San Diego, where it became evident after his freshman year that he’d need to change things up in order to become truly elite.
“We widened him up, shortened his step, got him to believe that he could still generate the same amount of power or the fact that he didn’t have to hit it 600 feet, he could hit it 500 feet or 450,” the elder Bryant told Cubs Insider in February. “And that’s what it was. So we got his head closer to the ground by about 10 inches, he was closer to the outside pitch.
“And he was going on gut instinct and he went out and just tore it up in college the last two years. It was that simple. It was a real simple fix.”
That carried on more or less through Bryant’s rookie season, when father and son once again went back to the drawing board to improve contact and create more hard-hit balls in the air.
“So my goal was really simple: “To reduce the swing-and-miss in the zone; to get him from chasing pitches out of the zone; and to hit more balls in the air,” Mike Bryant explained. “I want a higher ratio of balls in the air to balls on the ground. The results, they’re predictable, they’re reliable in that you’re not going to ground into many double plays, which he doesn’t.
“It’s not like we’re trying to hit home runs. The Ted Williams approach was to hit it hard and hit it in the air and then we figured out the angles in the swing. They talk about him becoming that pull hitter. That definitely was not the case. That was a result of the fact that he was not chasing pitches out of the zone on the outer part of the plate. The pitcher, as a result, the pitcher’s going to come in.”
Much of that reconditioning — which came over the course of an estimated 6,000 – 7,000 swings between the 2015 NLCS and 2016 Spring Training — was necessitated by all the damage Bryant had done against outside pitches. The book on him changed to where MLB pitchers felt they could beat him inside, that maybe the lanky sophomore wouldn’t be able to turn on that stuff.
Well, you saw how that worked out, as Bryant absolutely destroyed the pull side to the tune of a .448 average. So that probably means pitchers are going to start probing that outer third and off the plate away again, right?
“If the pitchers are going to be stupid enough to try to change the way they pitch to (Kris)…we’re already a step ahead of them,” the MVP’s father said. “So if you’re going to pitch him on the outer half of the plate this year, we prepared together what the technique’s going to be to drive the ball hard into the right-center field gap.”
And that’s really the beauty of this whole thing, maybe even more so than Bryant’s baby blues. We’re not watching a man-child who just matured faster than those around him or a mindless brute flailing away and hoping to catch a mistake. No, this is an incredibly talented baseball player who’s employing both traditional and technologically advanced hitting theory in order to evolve at the plate.
Which is to say that by the time you’ve identified a weakness in his game, Bryant has already been working to shore it up and turn it into a strength. Good luck in your future endeavors to beat him, opposing pitchers, you’re going to need it.