Over the holiday weekend, I was asked a question. Surely, it was somewhat rhetorical, but it led me to ask myself the question in a serious and analytical way…
“How does Kris Bryant get better?”
Before I continue with this article, because it needs to be said, there is going to be a lot of nitpicking in here. In an intellectually honest conversation, the NL MVP who had 8.4 fWAR and improved in almost every meaningful way between 2015 and 2016 doesn’t have a lot he needs to do better. If he stayed between his 2015 and 2016 production between now and his 30th birthday and begins a gradual decline at that point, he would certainly be a Hall of Fame worthy player whose career earnings rival anyone in the game. Which, you know, isn’t too bad. Criticizing Kris Bryant isn’t the intent here. Especially not after the season he had individually, and as a member of a championship team.
In the interest of a challenge, though, let’s explore how the (arguably) best position player in the National League could get better. And the best place to start is in the field. A cursory look at the numbers backs up everything our eyes told us in 2016. Kris Bryant was an improved defender from 2015 to 2016. He had 3 defensive runs saved in 1209 1/3 innings at third base in 2015 and 4 DRS in 2016 in 857 innings. His UZR/150 improved from 5.4 to 7.7. And as an outfielder, he had 5 DRS in 453 1/3 innings. Kris Bryant was an asset wherever he was on the field. But, one number was still an issue. Throwing errors. His throwing errors increased from 4 to 6, and neither of those numbers illustrate what’s important. He was a recurring tendency to throw high and carry Anthony Rizzo over and across the bag with some of his throws. Many of those would be errors are saved by the excellent hands of Rizzo. But what is truly important is that they also carry Rizzo into the path of an oncoming base runner and potential collision.
Looking at the images gives some of the explanation for why he has a tendency to float some of his throws to first base. The throw on the top was a high throw in August of 2015. It was a routine play, he set his feet, took a step in the direction of the first base bag and threw. The throw on the bottom was from June 2016, where he had to go to his right to field the ball and throw quickly to first base. The two throws have a distinction that characterizes why his throws have different outcomes, though. Notice the difference in elbow positioning. When he has time to throw, he, at times, drops his elbow, causing the ball to sail high. When he has less time (and has to rely on his natural athleticism), his elbow is up, bringing his arm nearly parallel to the ground, which allows him to throw with a more linear path to the base.
Explanations as to why he does this are hard to come across. From an outside perspective, laziness is a usual go-to for things like this. But an infielder throwing to a base is a lot like a shooter in basketball being wide open. Time is the enemy of rhythm, which is how so many athletes perform at such a high level. When he has time to make an easy throw, he takes his time. And in the same way a wide open three point shooter lines up the laces, resets his feet, and shoots, the result is an unnatural motion that causes the throw or the shot to miss his mark. Fixing that is a bit of a mystery because over the course of a long season, it’s hard to not to relax on individual plays. And it would be unfair to say he didn’t also improve in this area between 2015 and 2016. But it should be an area where Kris Bryant remains vigilant.
As he was progressing through the minor league system and in his first season with the Cubs, Kris Bryant was an all fields hitter who could just as easily drive the ball out of right field as he could drive it out of left field.
The two images of the exit velocity Kris Bryant produced between 2015 and 2016 tell a different story of Kris Bryant as a hitter, and it was observed during the season…he became, almost exclusively, a pull power hitter in 2016. For a guy who hit 39 HRs and dropped his strike out rate from 30.6% to 22.0%, this isn’t a problem. And explanations for the reasons why are multiple and pinpointing a specific one is beyond the point of this article. But one piece of the explanation for the reduction in exit velocity to right field is probably that he expanded his zone to the outside more than he did in 2015.
The 2015 and 2016 swing charts show that he did swing at more pitches out of the zone both up and away (but not up and away, where he wasn’t having any of it). And his swing and miss rate at those pitches away is pretty low, meaning there was likely a fair amount of weak contact involved. Another piece of the explanation could be that teams pitched Bryant more inside over the course of 2016 than they did in 2015, so he was merely hitting it to where he was being pitched. For a hitter as gifted as Kris Bryant, this is almost assuredly part of it, although there are other factors that definitely play into why this happened.
It remains to be seen how teams will pitch to Kris Bryant as we move into 2017, but what the numbers, his spray charts, and his swing charts show is that throwing him inside doesn’t really work all that well. He was a menace to National League pitching in 2016, who tried to throw more down and in. As we well know, the league always adjusts, and the league surely has any information that we have. What we don’t know is how he adjusts with it. It isn’t easy to project how teams will pitch to Kris Bryant, but it is fair to assume that they will not come at him exactly as they did in 2016. This isn’t even an area where Kris Bryant needs to improve, as much as it is an area to keep an eye on. If he remains a pull hitter, as he was in 2016, it could have some negative impact on his results as he moves forward. And, of course, this all depends on how teams pitch to him.
In 2016, the rate of pitches outside the strike zone Kris Bryant swung at rose from 29.8% in 2015 to 30.8% in 2016. Interestingly enough, his walk rate dropped from 11.8% to 10.7%, which is genuinely remarkable because the two aren’t usually so nearly perfectly aligned. In advancing the discussion, however, it should be noted that his contact rate on pitches out of the zone was up from 49% to just under 60%, overall contact rate was up 7% from 66 to 73% while his swing rate overall stayed fairly static (49% in 2015 to 48.8% in 2016). These numbers can help explain the dip in BABIP from .378 to .332. With the improvements in his overall contact rate, and the documented work on his swing path, not expanding the strike zone is a key for Kris Bryant to continue to expand his production. After a .292/.385/.554 season, staying in the strike zone more than he already does could move him into a rare echelon of hitter who can consistently produce .300/.400/.500 slash lines year in and year out. He wasn’t far away from that in 2016. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that for him in the future.
Areas of improvement for Kris Bryant are difficult to come by. In many ways, these areas identified here aren’t necessarily places where Kris Bryant needs to improve, per se. Much of what is here are normal parts of the developmental process. Although it’s completely overlooked, Kris Bryant has been on 1 Opening Day roster. And has played in just over 300 big league games. He isn’t a finished product by any means…and is only now starting to reach the point of his physical prime. He has room to improve, although finding specific points to highlight isn’t a particularly easy task. In the aggregate, Kris Bryant continues to get better if he continues to refine his craft, almost by default. That’s a scary thought, even for those of us who enjoy watching him every day.