The Chicago Cubs have been immensely disappointing in 2017, not quite living up to the dynastic expectations that were forced upon them. Kyle Schwarber is struggling (if you haven’t heard that, I don’t know where you have been). Addison Russell is struggling. The pitching rotation is struggling. Star third baseman Kris Bryant, however, has managed to avoid being dragged down with the rest of the team.
In his MVP season last year, Bryant put up a .402 wOBA and a 149 wRC+, ranking 8th and 9th in the league, respectively. Through 50 games in 2017, he has posted a .402 wOBA and a 147 wRC+. The results are almost identical, but the two ways they have been achieved are not quite as similar.
40.3% of Bryant’s contact was considered hard in 2016, good for 13th in the league. But visit the Statcast exit velocity leaderboard for 2017, and you won’t be seeing Bryant anywhere near the top. Bryant’s Hard% is down all the way to 29.6% in 2017 and his average exit velocity of 86.21 mph this year is actually worse than the MLB Average 87.83 mph. The wOBAs for each season are the same, but the xwOBAs tell a much different story. Bryant was a bit lucky in 2016, as his xwOBA of .383 indicated a performance a little worse than his numbers. But it did not change the fact that Bryant still put up an MVP season, and it doesn’t look as worse if you consider Wrigley Field had a park factor of 90.2 in 2016. This year, Bryant’s .349 xwOBA pales in comparison to the .402 wOBA, especially with Wrigley’s 110.2 park factor this year. Bryant, unlike other Cubs, has managed to dodge the criticism this year with the help of a whole lot of luck.
The 2016 and 2017 launch angles are quite similar, so a change in swing path likely isn’t causing the weaker contact. And with the 2016 Bryant put up, one would hardly expect that he was quick to adjust his swing. The change is strange, but there may be an explanation.
Like with most power guys, Bryant was a heavy pull hitter in 2016, hitting 46.7% of his balls to left field. That number has taken a massive drop to 38.7% this season. Balls in play are likely to find more gaps if they are sprayed all over the field, but that still cannot come close to accounting for the difference in Bryant’s xwOBA and wOBA. Hand in hand with that, his contact rates have gone up. He is connecting on 65.3% of his swings on pitches outside the zone, up from 59.8% last year. His swinging strike rate is down from 13.0% to an impressive 9.7%. Perhaps Bryant, like Giancarlo Stanton also recently did, decided to give up some power for a more balanced plate approach.
The problem, though, is that Bryant hasn’t altered his strikeout rates. His K% is only down to 20.5% this year from 22.0% last year. Bryant is chasing less, though, lowering his O-Swing% from 30.8% to 28.6%. He is chasing less now, and even when he is chasing, he is making more contact. He’s also making a whole lot more contact in general. Those should add up to fewer strikeouts, but, oddly, they aren’t. Again, there may be an explanation. Bryant is still whiffing a whole lot with two strikes, as his swinging strike with two strikes with rate is still at 24.5%, compared to last year’s 26.8% mark. You can’t strike out without two strikes, so even if he is whiffing less with one or zero strikes, he’s not making more contact when there is an actual punch-out opportunity.
If you are going to refine your plate approach and lose some of the aggressive hacks, you need to strike out less, as Stanton did. Guys like (younger) Stanton have to offset lots of misses by doing something with the ball on the times they don’t miss.
But there is one thing that has really confused me. Why is a former MVP giving up the approach that got him the award? Everyone can and should make adjustments to get better, even Mike Trout, but it is odd to see Bryant stray this far from what he did last year.
There is some good news, though. Bryant is posting a 15.5% walk rate, ranking 11th in the league. His Zone% has actually slightly increased from this year to last, so perhaps Bryant’s improved eye is forcing pitchers to attack him in the zone. Or maybe they are catching on to his weak contact.
Overall, this has been a weird season for Bryant and the Cubs. The Cubs are loudly scuffling, while Bryant is quietly putting together a mysterious season. He won the MVP in 2016, but then seemingly decided to make big adjustments to his plate approach. His new approach isn’t working, but his production isn’t falling. I honestly don’t know what to make of this right now, and maybe no conclusions need to be drawn at this time. But one thing that can be taken away is that we should start monitoring Bryant a little more closely.