Inbox: Is Bryant's start cause for concern?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers questions from fans

April 22nd, 2019

When do we start to worry about Kris Bryant? I already have, going back to last year. But, when does everybody else? His swing is late. He doesn't hit the ball hard. In a season where balls are flying out of the yard, he has one home run in Texas on Opening Day.
-- Kevin M., Chicago

At some point, the "it's early" response will have an expiration date. We're not there, yet.

I think Anthony Rizzo is a great example. Just one year ago, Rizzo endured a brutal April. He hit .149 with a .448 OPS in the season's first month, but then the Cubs first baseman turned in a .303 average and .905 OPS over the remainder of the schedule. Now, true, Rizzo is historically a slow starter, but it is nonetheless an example -- one of many across the league -- of how one month does not define six.

All of that said, Bryant is understandably under the microscope right now. A left shoulder injury sapped his power last year and he walked off the field on Sunday with a .365 slugging percentage through 20 games this season. Everyone says that Bryant is healthy. This, from what everyone around the team has said, is a mechanical issue that will be ironed out over time.

Besides the backdrop of last year's health woes, there is also the fact that Cubs fans are not used to seeing Bryant be slow out of the gates. He had a 1.017 OPS through May 18 last year before the shoulder injury. Bryant had a .907 OPS in the first month in 2017 and an .878 OPS in the first month in '16.

So, what is going on?

Well, Bryant's average exit velocity (87.9 mph) is in the same range as 2017 (87.1), but his hard-hit percentage has dropped to 30.2 percent (down from 36.4 percent in '17), per Statcast. I'm referencing the 2017 campaign because the '18 results were influenced by the injury. Bryant is also not hitting fastballs -- his bread and butter. He's hit .250 with a .386 SLG vs. fastballs this year. His SLG vs. fastballs (all types) was .535 in '18, .558 in '17 and .645 in '16.

The part that's worrisome, in my opinion, is the 69.9 percent contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone, per Statcast. That rate was 80.3 percent in 2018 and 82.1 percent in '17. Now, if this is a timing issue -- one that can be corrected with a mechanical tweak -- the production against fastballs should improve, and then the contact rate in the zone would presumably climb with the improved results.

So, is it time to worry? I'd say it's always time to examine why something like this is happening. I don't think it's time to worry about a 20-game sample predicting how things will go for the next five months. We'll surely revisit this topic in May ... and June ... and July ... and ... and ... you get the point.

What’s the latest on Ian Happ working his way back?
-- Jim M., Naperville, Ill.

One of the main objectives for Happ was to improve his approach while hitting left-handed. Through Saturday's Triple-A action, he was batting .225 with a .670 OPS and a 36.4 percent strikeout rate against right-handed pitching. Overall, he was batting .213 with a .644 OPS and 34.3 percent strikeout rate for Triple-A Iowa. On the surface, that shows that there is still work to be done for Happ.

Tyler Chatwood looked great against the D-backs on Sunday. Will he make another start with Jon Lester still out?
-- Jack S., Chicago

Chatwood was efficient and impressive against Arizona, but a lot of the decision to have him pitch was due to the D-backs' struggles against right-handed pitching. For now, expect Chatwood to move back to the bullpen and be on call for another spot start, if needed. At least the Cubs can now be confident that Chatwood is a viable option if another matchup situation comes up like it did with the D-backs. As for Lester, I wouldn't expect him to be on the injured list much longer.

Brandon Morrow had another setback and now we don't know when he will be available for the Cubs. I've got three words to solve this problem: Get Craig Kimbrel.
-- Kyle R.,

I agree that going after Kimbrel would make a lot of sense for the Cubs, but there has been nothing new to indicate that Chicago will suddenly be able to make room in the player budget for that kind of move. Here's some good bullpen news: the Cubs' relief corps has a 2.85 ERA in 41 innings dating back to April 6. I picked that day because that's when the bullpen had its first real transaction shakeup. Part of that improvement is due to better numbers from the rotation, but the relief arms have been sorting themselves out, too.

You're three weeks into watching this Cubs team play on a daily basis. What has stood out to you the most?
-- Bob G., Evanston, Ill.

That's a really broad question, but two things about the offense jumped to mind.

First: Opposite-field approach. Joe Maddon talked about it all spring, but managers always talk the talk in the preseason. We watched the team really focus on situational hitting in camp, and it's been a big part of the offense so far this year. One stat I'm monitoring is the opposite-field slugging percentage, which was at an MLB-leading .669 entering Sunday, per Statcast.

Second: Javier Baez's baserunning. I always appreciated Baez from afar, but you can't take your eyes off him once the ball's in play and he's in motion. Any hesitation by a fielder or any slight misplay by the defense can result in Baez snagging an extra base. And, because he has that ability, he forces defenders into rushed actions. We saw that Sunday, when Adam Jones bobbled a roller down the right field-line and Baez went from home to third on the play.