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High heat against Bryant? Think again

Cubs star has closed hole in his swing against elevated fastballs
June 13, 2018

It's hard to find a more picturesque right-handed swing right now than that of Kristopher Bryant. With its looping path, Bryant's cut is built for majestic home runs to left field. To astute pitchers, it also appears ready to be exploited upstairs.But appearances can be deceiving, because Bryant -- like

It's hard to find a more picturesque right-handed swing right now than that of Kristopher Bryant. With its looping path, Bryant's cut is built for majestic home runs to left field. To astute pitchers, it also appears ready to be exploited upstairs.
But appearances can be deceiving, because Bryant -- like all great hitters -- is never finished honing that swing. After he belted 26 homers and claimed the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Award, Bryant went back in the cage to erase a major contributor to his league-high 199 strikeouts.
"My swing was steep and I hardly ever got to that high fastball," Bryant recalled recently to "I went into that offseason trying to flatten my swing a little bit."
Bryant's desire to get the ball in the air (passed down from his father, Mike, and by extension the great Ted Williams, whom Mike brushed shoulders with as a player in the Red Sox's farm system) is no secret, and pitchers quickly discovered that Bryant could be susceptible to heat thrown up above the hands. In 2015, Chicago's budding star struck out 29 times and hit just .175 against pitches classified by Statcast™ as elevated fastballs.
"Those ones up are where a lot of guys in the game now are trying to get hitters out," said Bryant. "I said to myself, 'I'm not going to let them get me out up there anymore. I'm going to find a way to do some damage.'"

Incorporating a high tee into his cage routine, Bryant set out to confront those fastballs head-on. Looking strictly at the numbers, Bryant is accomplishing his mission. In fact, the tandem drop-off in Bryant's whiff-per-swing rate (misses out of total swings) and his climbing average and slugging against high heat over his first four seasons has been staggering.
Bryant's whiff/swing rate vs. elevated fastballs, by year, 2015-18
2015: 41.0 percent
2016: 26.4 percent
2017: 19.4 percent
2018: 16.0 percent
Bryant's batting average and slugging percentage vs. elevated fastballs, by year, 2015-18
2015: .175 / .368
2016: .197 / .382
2017: .317 / .644
2018: .370 / .630

Bryant's 2015 whiff-per-swing rate (misses out of total swings) against high heat ranked among the worst in the Majors, but he now sits within the top 20 percent of hitters. His slugging percentage against those pitches is also now squarely among the MLB elite.

Bryant's improving ability to connect upstairs has its trade-offs. Both his average exit velocity and his rate of hard contact (95-plus mph exit velocity) have gone down since his back-to-back Rookie of the Year and MVP campaigns. But so too have Bryant's strikeout rates, and his OPS and weighted runs created plus have remained relatively constant since 2016. At the cost of some top-end power and harder swings has come a more complete hitter. Bryant now covers more of the plate and gives away fewer at-bats -- especially when catchers put their targets up at his chest.
"Kris' swing is the same as when he won Rookie of the Year, you just make little tweaks as the league changes how they pitch to you," said Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis. "You don't have to completely revamp your swing."
Indeed, hitting the high cheese can be based in recognition and repetition as much as mechanical changes, and Bryant has gotten plenty of reps. Pitchers have elevated more of their fastballs to Bryant with each passing year, even as he's increasingly shown he can adapt.
Gif: Bryant Side-by-Side
Better recognition and anticipation has helped Bryant catch up to high fastballs that eluded him his rookie season

As they become more prevalent, high fastballs present a double-edged sword for both sides. Pitchers, for instance, must execute the weapon with precision.
"A lot of pitchers now will try to pitch up," said Davis, "but if you don't know how to pitch up there, you're going to make mistakes. It might be a disadvantage to them. You need to know how to pitch up in that zone. If you don't do that the right way, you're going to get hurt."
High heat can also make hitters like Bryant salivate, but the trick is recognizing what he can get to and what he can't.
"Every team is different in how they attack," said Bryant. "The Dodgers, for instance, constantly pitch up. It's an enticing pitch because you see it better, and you're more likely to swing because you see it so well. But it is a matter of figuring out how high you can go to get to them."
The Dodgers, it should be noted, have held Bryant to just three hits in 18 at-bats ending on elevated fastballs dating back to 2016. But Los Angeles has been baseball's biggest purveyor of high heat lately; teams that are less adept with the approach are finding out the danger of attacking Bryant there.
"You would think that he's not going to get to that ball with his swing path," said Davis. "But he works at it. I'd rather see him swing up there than down, because he can handle that pitch."
Gif: Kris Bryant_HiFastball Whiffs_2015_2018
Statcast™ heat maps show Bryant's whiff rates against high fastballs declining with each passing year
Bryant echoed Davis' sentiment, telling that he often goes up to the plate prepared to see something up at his chest. He knows the natural loop in his swing can take care of the rest.
"I look up and react down," Bryant said, "because hitting them down is a whole lot easier for me. When it's down, you just drop the bat head down on it and hit it."
High fastballs might appear to be an antidote for dangerous sluggers, but the best ones find ways to improve. Michael Trout famously solved the high hole in his swing, and now it appears Bryant has done the same. As Bryant powers his way to another MVP-caliber season, opponents will have to find another way to get him out.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.