Why Kris Bryant’s Performance Isn’t Surprising, Plus More Replay Criticism

Kris Bryant has been the Cubs’ best hitter so far this season, a development that has somehow come as a surprise to a few folks even though it’s a continuation of pretty much his entire career. With the exception of a slow start in 2020 that was further hampered by an impact fracture in his left wrist and two torn ligaments in his left ring finger, Bryant has performed at an MVP level for at least part of each season.

And yes, I understand that smacks strongly of apologism if you choose to view it that way.

The skepticism has sprouted out of the other parts of those seasons, specifically the 2018 and ’19 campaigns in which shoulder and knee injuries derailed production that was on pace to easily exceed those from 2016. This is the part where I remind you for the 37th time that being hit in the head by a pitch early in ’18 had absolutely nothing to do with any of this.

Rather than contextualize the injuries, many observers have chosen to blame Bryant’s “struggles” on a failure to adjust as pitchers’ attacked his launch angle-centric approach. Thing is, it’s hard enough to hit upper 90’s fastballs under the best circumstances. Trying to do it while injured is damn near impossible.

Now fully healthy again, Bryant is proving that he’s still an elite hitter and that he has indeed adopted adequate adjustments. He made a small change to his stance in the offseason, loading a little more into his back leg to increase bat speed. He’s also keeping his hands a little higher in order to better handle high heat. One hit can not make a definitive statement, but Bryant’s leadoff single in the 9th Thursday night against a 99 mph fastball riding in on his hands was a very positive sign.

What followed, however, was not quite as positive. After reaching to open the frame, Bryant watched as Anthony Rizzo and Javy Báez struck out to decrease the Cubs’ chances of walking it off in regulation. So on the first pitch to Matt Duffy, Bryant took off and was called out trying to steal second. The call was upheld on replay and later became inconsequential when Jason Heyward walked it off the next inning, but the whole thing sticks in my craw.

Video replay was implemented to correct obvious human errors that occur when plays unfold too quickly and with too many moving parts for the naked eye to properly discern them. The point was to avoid bad calls or those in which the umpire was in poor position. An unintended consequence of this ever-improving technology is that it’s able to isolate fractions of inches or seconds to a degree that runs contrary to the spirit of replay.

Bryant’s slide into second Thursday night is the perfect example of why the replay system needs to be overhauled. In fairness, the long-legged third baseman may be prone to such situations because he tends to drop into his slide a bit later than would be considered ideal. While that allows him to maintain more speed, it also makes holding the bag more difficult.

In this particular instance, it appeared as though his front foot beat the tag, then came off the base as his back foot made contact. It was a bang-bang play and it appeared as though John Libka, whose strike zone Tuesday night calls his eyesight into question, was focused on that front foot when he called Bryant out.

Therein lies the first and biggest problem with replay review: It relies on the very human judgment it is meant to correct for its foundation of truth. Eliminating the call on the field and making a decision based solely on replay would help. But that’s just the start.

The issue with plays at the bag is that replay can tell whether a player lost contact by one millimeter for one millisecond. Let’s say that was the case with Bryant or any other previous or future call at a base. Even if the initial call was correct, it would have been a total guess on the umpire’s part. In fact, the ump’s call would have been wrong based on what they could see because their perceptive skills are not astute enough to make out such tiny margins.

I know there are sticklers out there for getting the call absolutely right and I can understand it from the perspective of teaching players to maintain the tag through the play. However, I can’t square the idea that replay has gone beyond its intended purpose and is now determining calls that never could have been made properly in the first place. It’s baseball’s version of Project Insight from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

It’s not that I’m against replay or that I want to keep all manner of human error in the game because that’s not the case. I just don’t like the way replay is deployed and I think it could be changed for the better with a few simple tweaks. Hey, Theo, I know you’re reading this. Tell the folks at HQ I’m willing to discuss this with them and that my consultancy fees are quite reasonable.

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