When Kris Bryant was a prospect, scouts praised his athleticism, power, and attitude, but not without mention of one glaring flaw: whiffs. Indeed, scouts and computers alike rated Bryant’s inability to make consistent contact as a weakness.
In KATOH’s (minor league player projection model) eyes, Bryant’s biggest bugaboo is his strikeout rate. His 27% K% from last year wasn’t terrible, per se, but was certainly closer to bad than good. However, these inflated strikeout numbers are really just a symptom of Bryant’s real problem: His inability to make contact. According to Minor League Central, Bryant made contact just 65% of pitches thrown to him in Triple-A last year, which was 6th lowest among 305 Triple-A players with at least 200 plate appearances.
Nevertheless, sacrificing contact for homers was a worthwhile trade-off, said several favorable scouting reports, which is usually the case for the game’s most premier power hitters anyway. After all, only the historically great players are able to exhibit both power and contact.
But maybe Bryant is turning into such a player who possesses the rare combination.
En route to the National League Rookie of the Year award, Bryant swatted 26 homers in 650 plate appearances, yet only made contact with 66.3 percent of pitches, the lowest rate in MLB. Aware of this fact, the decorated power hitter and his dad, Mike, diligently worked throughout the offseason to improve contact. Mike explained to me that Kris’s swing angle was to steep — 38 degrees, to be exact — and that they sought to improve the angle to the 20-25 degree range.
“Mission accomplished,” said the elder Bryant.
The new and improved third baseman was noticeably different in 2016. In only a few months working hard in the cage with his dad, Bryant went from owning one of the worst contact rates to hitting 73.3 percent of the pitches he saw, all while smashing 39 homers and eventually getting sized up for his World Series ring.
So far in this young season, Bryant is making improvements in contact rate once again. Going into the series against Boston, the 25-year-old was making 78.5 percent contact, better than the 77.4 percent league average. That means it only took two seasons for the young star to go from the game’s most whiff-prone hitter to making more contact than half the league.
While this is only a one-month sample, contact rate stabilizes after roughly 100 plate appearances and Bryant has already surpassed that mark. As such, we can reliably say that his ability to size up pitches is mostly due to talent, not randomness, though the natural chaos of baseball will always exist.
These improvements should not be taken lightly. Normal hitters just don’t improve contact rate to the extent Bryant has at this point. Whereas players Bryant’s age typically improve their contact rates by roughly one percentage point over their first three seasons, the reigning MVP has engineered a twelvefold jump over the same spans. That, my friends, is astonishing.
Jason McLeod, Cubs VP of player development, used Kris Bryant as an example of ideal makeup (i.e., personality traits, attitude, etc.) in an interview with Baseball Prospectus.
We do take into consideration the makeup of a player and bringing him into an environment like Boston or an environment like Chicago. Kris Bryant, case in point. Granted he was the no. 2 player overall, but just from a makeup standpoint, after the area scout did such a great job knowing Kris and having history with his college coach, Jed [Hoyer] and I getting to sit down with him — we all left that meeting saying if there was a guy who could handle the expectations in Chicago being the no. 2 overall pick, this is the guy. This is the way he’s wired. And he’s been that guy.
Bryant’s capacity to learn, adjust, and reappraise is just as important as his ability to pepper baseballs into the seats. Without such makeup, his improbable improvements in contact rate may not have occurred. And the best part is that he may well be able to keep improving. Whoa.
Contact rate data pulled from Bill Petti of FanGraphs.