It’s not surprising that Kris Bryant was unhappy with his league-leading strikeout rate last year. It might not even be surprising to find out that he wasn’t satisfied with his breakout rookie campaign, in which he batted .275 with 26 home runs and an on-base percentage of .369, amassing a rookie WAR of 6.5. Hunger is a key part of professional sports. You always want more. It might surprise you to find out that he went so far as to change his swing at nearly the ground level to improve all of that. One of Bryant’s signature assets coming into baseball was his high, looping swing capable of golfing balls out of the corner of the strike zone. It’s also partially due to his lanky 6’5” frame. It’s the natural motion. Change it he did, though, and it’s led to an excellent season thus far. Let’s look at the changes he’s made, and how they’ve played out at the plate through a month and a half of baseball.
Per this Chicago Tribune article, Bryant looked to decrease the angle of his bat swinging through the zone to generate more line-drive contact and reduce strikeouts. Originally around the 30-35-degree mark, he lowered the spot in which he holds the bat to compensate for the natural angle created by his height to cover more of the zone horizontally. He aimed to come across closer to 25 degrees. In Bryant’s own words, the launch angle of homers at his old angle look nicer, but 20-25 generates more and better hits.
It would seem that the change has paid early-season dividends, given Bryant’s higher batting average (so far) and the fact that he’s on track for a significant amount more doubles and singles this year. That, however, could easily still be an early season hot streak. The real proof is in the heat maps.
Note: These graphs and numbers were pulled the morning of May 4, 2016/
Compare Bryant’s batting average zone for 2015, and compare it to his 2016 so far, per Fangraphs. There’s a very visible difference in his hot zones. Last year, he’s hot in the middle with a fading pattern towards opposite corners, in line with his higher-degree swing. It generated a hell of a lot of lift, but its coverage of the middle of the zone gave pitchers more space to work around Bryant. 2016 is a totally different story. The heat zone is across the middle of the strike zone, with some moderate coverage above and below the half-line. Whether the increase in hits is actually due to his changed mechanics or not could still be undetermined, but he’s definitely generating contact in a different part of the zone in line with the changes he was looking to make.
Hopefully, the increase in doubles and singles pace is a sign as well, since one of the main points was to reduce infield flys and airy, playable hits. From what the numbers say, that goal is being accomplished early on as well. Again per Fangraphs, his soft/medium/hard contact numbers are pretty similar to last year. However, his line drive percentage is up to 27.8% from 20.5% last year. On top of that, his fly ball percentage is down significantly to 37.5% from 45.2%. His infield hit percentage is up too from 14.4% to 28%, which isn’t the best thing, but it follows logically from a flatter swing.
So far, the change in swing angle has created a tangible difference in the way Bryant contacts and drives the ball. Most of the effects seem to be positive, and his hitting has definitely lead to the Cubs’ stellar start this year, now 18-6. Point is, he’s accomplishing what he wanted to so far, and the home runs will come. He’s already on pace for more hits, which makes him just an even scarier part of a lineup that probably haunts pitchers’ nightmares, and tweaking his game to get better will continue to make him one of the best young players in baseball.