Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe my motherfuck powers have gone beyond what I thought. I’ll wear it if I have to.
It only took me about a season and a half to declare Kris Bryant the greatest Cub ever. Or that he would be. And that wasn’t even much of a statement. His first three seasons saw him pile up 20.6 WAR, collect a Rookie Of The Year and MVP, and he wasn’t even 26 yet. What he projected from there was quite simply nothing the Northside had ever seen before. If you trust WAR, the best Cub of all-time is Cap Anson at 81.8 over his career. Bryant was essentially a quarter of the way there in just three seasons. In the modern era it was Ron Santo with 71.9, and again, Bryan was almost a third of the way to that with just three seasons. It would have taken him about a decade to beat these totals into the dirt.
Then last year happens, and we can all forgive an injury-riddled season. Before June, when Bryant first went on the shelf, he was baseball murder too. Shoulder injuries are a problem for someone who, y’know, swings for a living. Bad couple months. Can write that off. Just a blip. They told us so. Fine. Everything will be fine. I SAID EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE.
And we’re only a month into this season. So to draw any conclusions would be silly. And yet I can’t help but notice my hand moving towards my collar in anticipation of having to be called upon to tug it.
A slash line of .230/.345/.365 isn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect. It’s not court jester material, but Bryant putting up what Jason Heyward had been wasn’t part of the plan.
And you probably know me by now to know that I go looking for rotten luck to explain that sort of thing. Can’t be found here. Bryant’s BABIP is .296, which is far lower than his career .343 mark but not a ridiculously low mark in the grand scheme of things.
And the thing is, Bryant isn’t hitting the ball hard enough to argue that he should be getting better luck. Bryant is hitting fewer fly balls than he ever has, and more grounders than ever. This is not an optimal combo. He’s never been an expansive line-drive hitter, but that percentage is down too. Which would be fine if the fly balls weren’t as well. Perhaps more depressing, is that his hard-contact rate is at a career-low 30.9%. Which isn’t really out of line with his past three years, but far below his MVP-level of 40.3%.
If it’s hard numbers you need, his exit-velocity average is a little above last year and in line with 2017, but a couple ticks below his fist-in-the-face-of-god ’15 and ’16. And his launch angle is dirt-surfing compared with the rest of his career, as we mentioned there are more and more baseballs with grass stains on them when he’s done with them.
So what’s going on here?
Last season, when Bryant came back, it was clear he couldn’t really handle good velocity. Which in today’s game is something of an issue, as every joker and palooka in the bullpen that gets pointed at by a somewhat awake manager waddling to the mound comes armed with good velocity. In his first three years, you didn’t throw fastballs to Bryant. At least not ones he could get to. He hit .298 and slugged .593 against them. His ISO was .295 (ISO being slugging minus batting average). He also mullered sinkers, because low in the zone is his (and consequently our) erogenous zone, hitting .348 against them and slugging .530.
These numbers started to slip when he got hurt in June of last year. From June on last year, he hit .263 and slugged .500 against fastballs, which is hardly embarrassing. But his power on sinkers really started to fade, dropping to .344. The numbers sink just a little more if you only look at September 1st of last year through the rest of the season after his extended absence.
Sorry to say the numbers have only gotten worse this year. He’s hitting .206 against fastballs and slugging .353. His numbers against sinkers have returned to marvelous, but he’s not seeing as many of them because he can’t deal with the fastball nearly as well.
When looking at location, it’s not a brighter picture. Here is Bryant’s whiff-rate on fastballs by location in his first three seasons:
And now this year:
It used to be you had to go high in the zone or above it to get a fastball by him. Now you just have to get it in the zone and he’s struggling.
If there’s any sliver of light, it’s that Bryant seems to be seeing offspeed pitches much better. His whiff per swing rates at change-ups and curves have dropped dramatically. And his average and slugging against them are much higher than they’ve ever been. So if I wanted to be rose-colored, and you know I do, this could be an adjustment to a change in approach. Bryant could be waiting back more to not be flummoxed by the slower breaking pitches that used to dodge him, but hence is on his heels for heat. At best, that’s just a guess.
Both Bryant and the Cubs have taken every opportunity to stress that he’s healthy, which always gets my lady-doth-protest-too-much antennae up and alert. The weak contact against fastballs is alarming, because he’s going to get more and more of them, and if everything isn’t quite right then that’s what he would struggle with.
We could all use a Galactus arrival soon.