You were wrong.
I was wrong.
Scouts were wrong.
Computers were wrong.
To be fair, pretty much no one and nothing saw this coming. But sure enough, Kris Bryant has turned into exactly the type of player teams can often only dream of employing, a guy who can hit moonshots without striking out.
Scouts and projection algorithms alike loved Bryant because of his understanding of the strike zone and dazzling power. But both the eye test and computers agreed that the MVP had a weakness: contact ability. Bryant’s long swing was viewed as a necessary evil; he could mash 450-foot homers, but strikeouts were the tradeoff.
Or so they said.
Take, for example, FanGraph’s post on projecting Bryant prior to 2015.
“In KATOH’s eyes, Bryant’s biggest bugaboo is his strikeout rate. His [minor league] 27% K% from last year wasn’t terrible, per se, but was certainly closer to bad than good. However, these inflated strikeout numbers are really just a symptom of Bryant’s real problem: His inability to make contact.” [emphasis mine]
At first, Bryant’s contact issues made the projections look accurate. The athletic third basemen hit 26 homers in his rookie season, but did so with a 30.6 percent strikeout rate and an MLB-worst 66.3 percent contact rate. Aware of this problem, the decorated slugger and his dad, Mike, diligently worked to improve the deficiency. Mike explained to me that Kris’s swing angle was too steep — 38 degrees to be exact — and they sought to decrease the angle to the 20-25 degree range going into the 2016 season.
The hard work father and son put in paid off. En route to an MVP year in which he finished with a .396 wOBA, Bryant improved his contact to 73.3 percent and only struck out at a 22.0 percent clip. But even that massive improvement in contact rate didn’t satisfy the young star.
Lest you think this is just a matter of standard progression, the fashion model’s improvement in contact is the equivalent of a human beating a supercomputer at chess.
What does a young MVP do the year after winning the award? Work harder to get even better, of course. Only 19.2 percent of Bryant’s plate appearances ended in a strikeout this year, three percentage points better than the MLB average. And he made contact on 77.8 percent of pitches, all while recording the best wOBA (.399) of his young career.
Lest you think this is just a matter of standard progression, the fashion model’s improvement in contact is the equivalent of a human beating a supercomputer at chess. Computers probably would’ve given Bryant a shot at a one- to three-percent improvement in contact rate from his rookie campaign, based on the MLB norm for similarly-aged players.
Bryant improved by 12 percentage points. K-Boom.
Players with Bryant’s 77.8 percent contact rate have only hit to a .163 ISO since 2010, not the .243 ISO Bryant produced in 2017.
Now, one could look at the other number and argue that Bryant’s improved contact rate came with 10 fewer homers than 2016. According to xStats, however, the smooth slugger’s 29 homers this year fell below his expected total in a neutral park with neutral conditions. His batted-ball profile correlated to an impressive 33 homers, so Bryant might not have sacrificed as much power as you think.
And most players who make as much contact as KB simply don’t hit for this much power. If there is one takeaway from this post, it’s the following sentence, which I have put in big bold letters so you can’t miss it. Players with Bryant’s 77.8 percent contact rate have only hit to a .163 ISO since 2010, not the .243 ISO Bryant produced in 2017.
I admit that I didn’t see the massive improvement in contact coming. Scouts and math told me not to expect it, so I listened to them. When Bryant made the least amount of contact in MLB during his rookie season, I was convinced. But most of us were ultimately proven wrong.