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Bryant returning to form, making 'hot outs'

@DKramer_
May 1, 2019

SEATTLE -- Kris Bryant did something on Tuesday that he hadn’t done since his National League MVP Award-winning season in 2016, and it signaled that the Cubs third baseman could be steering in a more positive direction at the plate. During Chicago’s 6-5 win over the Mariners, Bryant went 1-for-4,

SEATTLE -- Kris Bryant did something on Tuesday that he hadn’t done since his National League MVP Award-winning season in 2016, and it signaled that the Cubs third baseman could be steering in a more positive direction at the plate.

During Chicago’s 6-5 win over the Mariners, Bryant went 1-for-4, but he did so making what manager Joe Maddon classified as "hot outs" in every at-bat, making contact with an exit velocity of 105 mph or higher. Evidence suggests that Bryant's hard-hit outs were outliers.

Bryant didn’t quite keep the pace going Wednesday, going 0-for-2 with a walk and a strikeout before being pinch-hit for in the fifth inning with a 9-0 lead. Maddon opted to use Bryant as the DH in Seattle to let Bryant recover from minor hamstring tightness. Bryant is expected to be back in the field when the Cubs open a three-game series against the Cardinals in Chicago on Friday.

When Bryant does connect on balls with that bat speed, positive results tend to follow, and his hard-hit rate -- anything hit with a 95-mph exit velocity or higher -- is climbing near where it once was.

Bryant’s challenge thus far in 2019 has been two-fold: catching up to high heat and driving balls on the outer third -- both holes in his swing given the trajectory of his bat path. When Bryant gets behind in the count, pitchers are throwing in those areas more than half the time, which forces him to change his approach.

Bryant’s challenge in those sequences has been maintaining clean mechanics and balance. Given his 6-foot-5 frame, Bryant has always had a wider-than-usual stance with his legs, and as such, he describes his weight distribution as literally a delicate balance. One minor movement being off can push Bryant to lunging.

But there’s evidence that Bryant has cleaned up those issues, such as his opposite-field homer on Sunday in Arizona.

“I've seen a million pitches on the outside corner, and I've gotten to most of them. It's not something I think about,” Bryant said. “It's more about my hand position coming through the zone. That's when I get into trouble -- when my hands are lower coming through the zone and I swing through it and foul pitches off. When my hands are higher, I end up squaring it up.”

Last season, when Bryant was limited to 102 games due to a left shoulder injury, the most glaring drop-off was power. After suffering the injury on May 19 while sliding into first base, Bryant hit just five homers and slugged .382, vastly below the .555 he slugged over his first two-plus years to that point.

So when Bryant began the 2019 season slashing .217/.329/.350 through his first 15 games with just one homer, questions mounted whether his shoulder pain still lingered. Bryant and the Cubs, however, insist that’s not the case. A combination of pressing and a few mechanical flaws may have contributed to Bryant’s slow start.

“I think he got away from some stuff and now he's looking like he had, and we're seeing some good results,” Maddon said. “It's really a definite trap when a guy struggles, a good player does, and he's young, to really don't try to do anything new. Just try to do something old.”

Bryant says he has heeded that guidance. He became one of the most hyped prospects of his era, in part due to embracing the launch angle revolution before it was a trend. The trajectory in Bryant's swing lends to a more lift, which, coupled with elite exit velocity yields towering home runs that make him one of the Majors’ most revered power hitters when healthy and on time.

The Cubs’ offensive spiral played perhaps the most prominent factor in Chicago blowing a five-game lead to the Brewers over last season’s final month. In that stretch, when Bryant rejoined the club after missing six weeks, Bryant posted a .765 OPS and was slowly dropped lower in the order. For the Cubs to keep pace in the loaded NL Central -- where they trail the Brewers and Cardinals by three games despite winning 12 of their last 16 -- the Cubs say they need Bryant to be the elite run producer of his first three seasons.

And Bryant feels he’s on the cusp of reaching that point, if he’s not there already.

“I feel like I've never hit the ball harder,” Bryant said. “Everything is on the barrel and the fat part of the bat, which is great. And I'm taking my walks, I'm getting on base. I'm scoring runs and helping the team win; playing all over. That's kind of what I take pride in. I know that the batting average will take care of itself I keep hitting ball the way I am.”

Daniel Kramer is a reporter for MLB.com based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter at @DKramer_.