Kris Bryant more than met the high expectations put upon him in 2015, becoming the unanimous winner of the National League Rookie of the Year Award, but he entered his second season still wanting to improve.As he detailed to MLB.com in May, Bryant hoped to flatten out his uppercut swing
Kris Bryant more than met the high expectations put upon him in 2015, becoming the unanimous winner of the National League Rookie of the Year Award, but he entered his second season still wanting to improve.
As he detailed to MLB.com in May, Bryant hoped to flatten out his uppercut swing this year in order to lower a strikeout rate that was above 30 percent in 2015. He did just that, cutting it down to 23 percent without sacrificing any power; in fact, his slugging percentage is up more than 70 points.
As far as changes go, it was an effective one -- Bryant is one of the front-runners for the NL Most Valuable Player Award, and given that, the Cubs have to be more than satisfied with what they're getting from their young slugger. But it's still interesting to dig deeper and see just how different of a hitter Bryant has become. No one in baseball is more productive when pulling the ball. No one in baseball is less productive when going to the opposite field.
If that sounds shocking, it should, because Bryant came up hailed as a hitter who could do damage to all fields. Early last year, a Baseball America scouting report referred to his "Mike Piazza-like ability to hit to the opposite field power alley." FanGraphs dedicated an entire article to breaking down how Bryant hit a Francisco Liriano pitch in on his hands out to deep right field.
In his first year, Bryant hit five homers to right, and slugged .529 to the opposite field. This year? Well, let's back up those statements with numbers. OPS is a something of a blunt tool, but it'll get the job done here.
Lowest OPS to opposite field, 2016
.313 -- Bryant
.357 -- Derek Norris
.411 -- Ben Revere
.433 -- Eduardo Escobar
Now, the obvious counterbalance here is that absolutely nobody crushes to their pull field like Bryant does.
Highest OPS to pull field, 2016
1.523 -- Bryant
1.495 -- Trevor Story
1.428 -- Mookie Betts
1.426 -- Yoenis Céspedes
For Bryant, you can clearly see the difference in his power output by comparing his hit chart from last year to this year. There's no red dots (home runs) to the right side this year, and fewer hits of any kind.
MLB.com's Lindsay Berra asked Cubs manager Joe Maddon about that earlier this month, and Maddon quickly mentioned the swing changes.
"I don't even know if he's hit any home runs to that side this year, because he was really good at that when he was in the Minor Leagues, middle-oppo home runs," Maddon said. "It could be the residue of the swing changes he's made with [Cubs hitting coach John Mallee] over the last two years, because it's a different hack, a more functional swing now than when he first came up, so maybe all those things are factors. I'm not concerned. Everything's worked out pretty well, he's still really good."
Which is true! Bryant is still really, really good. But Maddon also brought up something interesting about the Cubs' home field.
"At our place, the wind is blowing in so much, if the ball's hit to the right side, the ball's going to hold up and it's not going to go anywhere," he said. "But if you hit it to the left side, it's going to go. His swing is not built for that, no question."
"They've shifted him heavily when the second baseman's come over," Maddon continued, "so once in a while, he'll get that low line drive that lands in front of the right fielder. But for the most part, the fly balls he hits to that side are in the air, really high, that can be run underneath. I would be interested if there's a difference between home and the road, because of the wind blowing in from right field."
As usual, Maddon is right. On the road this year, Bryant has at least managed seven hits, including two doubles, to the right third of the field. At home, there's been just two -- and both were grounders. Regardless of where he's playing, when hitting to the right side, Bryant's exit velocity has dropped from 87.2 mph to 84.9 mph, and if the peculiarities of Wrigley's wind patterns affect that even further, then what we're seeing makes sense.
So perhaps the question then is, should opposing defenses be playing him differently? Using Statcast™, we can look at the positioning of the defense against Bryant on every pitch, and limit it just to Wrigley Field.
As Maddon noted, there's evidence that the second baseman often moves to the left side of the infield. But the outfield plays Bryant relatively normally, which is interesting, partially because "he doesn't do it that often" in the first place, pointed out Maddon, and because when the ball does go that way, it's less likely to be productive. Obviously, defenses aren't going to simply abandon right field, but you do wonder if they'd be better off pushing the right and center fielder over closer to left, assuming that Bryant is unlikely to hurt them to right.
When Maddon said "everything's worked out really well," he's obviously not wrong. Bryant may be the best player on what is definitely baseball's best team. He's almost certainly going to receive well-deserved NL MVP Award votes, because with Bryce Harper's struggles, Bryant may just be the best player in the NL. It's just interesting to see how a young player can change his game so much -- and to see how opposing teams are (or are not) adjusting back.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.