Baseball

Is Kris Bryant Still Hurt Or Just Weird?

Well that’s easy. Bryant is weird, in that he might be the blandest person in baseball who really only just wants to play baseball. But I’m not here to discuss whether this guy is the human interpretation of beige or not.

And I’m certainly not here to claim that Bryan is bad, or disappointing, or anything remotely close. He’s been the Cubs best player in fWAR, and in wRC+. In the former, he’s the 7th-best player in the NL, and in the latter category 10th. So if I were to call these kinds of performance disappointing, I’d be perhaps the biggest asshole in the world (and I yet may be). Bryant has an outside shot at having his fourth 6.0+ WAR season, which would be every season he’s been healthy. He’ll have to hustle, but it’s possible. Also, since he came into the league, the only two players better than him are Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, in terms of WAR.

Clearly, Bryant is still very, very special.

Still, I have thought all season that with baseballs flying everywhere, former squeegee-holders now surpassing 30 homers, that it’s a touch weird that Kris Bryant isn’t anywhere near his career-high in homers or slugging. His career-high in homers was 39 in his MVP-year of 2016, and he’s at 25 now. It’s not that he couldn’t go nuclear in the season’s last six weeks here, and get up around that 39 number. It’s just unlikely, along with improving his slugging some 19 points to get to the .554 mark, also from 2016.

When digging into this a bit, it was a little startling to see that Bryant doesn’t really hit the ball all that hard.

Bryant’s hard-contact rate is 35%. That ranks 61st in the National League, which is only 16 spots ahead of last of all qualified players in the league, and really doesn’t compare to the likes of Yelich and Bellinger, who are over 50%. Bryant also only has a line-drive rate of just 19.5%. That’s not that far off his career-mark of 21%, and you’ve never really think of Bryant spraying line-drives everywhere. Actually, in his injury-ravaged season of ’18, he had a 25% line-drive rate, but that could be attributed to his shoulder problems and an inability to get the ball in the air as he had before.

Still, Bryant is hitting more grounders than he ever has, which can’t really be explained away as good in any fashion. If you go by exit velocity, his 87.6 MPH average is very pedestrian. It’s behind by two MPH what he did in 2016, but again, this is a season where the baseball is souped up with nitrous to be labeled all over the field.

In fact, if you go by StatCast, Bryant is lucky to have the numbers he does. His expected slugging and weighted on-base, based on the kind of contact he’s making, are both some 40 points below what his actual slugging and weighted on-base average are. Bryant’s 17.7% home run per fly ball rate is a little high, but not obscene to what he’s done before. But again, in this environment, it feels like it’s a touch low.

One angle could be is that Bryant, at least this season, has developed something of a hole in his swing up in the zone:

Bryant for his career was still pretty deadly high and high and inside in the zone, and that hasn’t been the case this year. I don’t think however, that if he were getting to those pitches as well it would do something about his contact numbers. It would affect his slugging and homers, at least you’d think so. He would be hitting more of those towering homers that just never seem to come down, that you’re picturing in your mind right now.

Still, Bryant only has one season of making hard-contact over 40% of the time, which again, was his MVP year. And for comparison, his 40.6% hard-contact rate that year ranked fifth in the NL. That mark would be 15th now (tied with Kyle Schwarber, strangely).

There is something about Bryant’s swing and style that just don’t make you think he should be hitting the ball viciously hard every time, while still being awfully productive. Again, the numbers are the numbers and no one should be upset with what Bryant has given.

There’s just this feeling that the atmosphere has changed, more and more hitters have caught up to what Bryant was doing, and he hasn’t geared up with them. Essentially putting up the same numbers and rates with this baseball suggests moving backwards a bit, or that he’s not completely healthy either. Being weak high in the zone, which he wasn’t before, could also suggest that shoulder isn’t quite 100%, but that’s just speculation. And last year, when he was definitely hurt, he was actually worse lower in the zone.

Look, this is Kris Bryant we’re talking about. GALACTUS. There might be only one player in the NL you’d even consider trading him for (Bellinger, and that’s mostly due to age). It just seems weird that Bryant isn’t putting up Belinger or Yelich numbers when everything is bent for him to do so.

Then again, this is probably complaining about the back of Penelope Cruz’s knee or something.

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