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How Kris Bryant Can Get Even Better After Monster MVP Season

The seemingly unstoppable Kris Bryant still has some untapped potential.
The seemingly unstoppable Kris Bryant still has some untapped potential.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2017

Somewhere down the line, Kris Bryant might make it his mission to conquer gravity, find the lost city of Atlantis or make the first good video game movie.

For now, continuing to get better at baseball will have to do.

This in itself is no small task given the trajectory Bryant is already on. In the last four years, the Chicago Cubs third baseman has been the College Player of the Year, the Minor League Player of the Year, the Rookie of the Year and, most recently, the MVP and a World Series champion.

The world hasn't seen a string of hits like this since...What? Beatlemania? Sure, let's go with that.

And the numbers are just as easy to gawk at. Bryant was elite in 151 games as a rookie in 2015, posting an .858 OPS with 26 home runs and accounting for 5.9 wins above replacement. He took the next step in 2016, finishing with a .939 OPS, 39 homers and 7.7 WAR in 155 games.

Add these two seasons together, and you get arguably a top-five position player:

Position Player WAR Leaders: 2015-2016
RankPlayerTeamWAR
1Mike TroutAngels19.9
2Josh DonaldsonBlue Jays16.3
3Mookie BettsRed Sox15.5
4Manny MachadoOrioles13.7
5Kris BryantCubs13.6
T-5Paul GoldschmidtDiamondbacks13.6
Baseball-Reference.com

As for how Bryant can possibly get better, two things bode well.

One: The dude's obviously a special talent. For justification of this notion, see above.

Two: Although Bryant is only 25, he's already shown he can make and implement major adjustments.

Take what he did last year. Despite all of his success as a rookie, Bryant wasn't happy that he led the NL with 199 strikeouts in 2015. To fix that, he sought to change his swing to be more direct to the ball.

"I feel [my swing is] a little flatter, and that's what I wanted to be," Bryant told Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune last February. "It was at too steep of an angle at times. That was my downfall last year, but I think it can only get better from here."

He was right. August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs spotted the noticeable change in Bryant's swing early in 2016, and the statistical change couldn't be ignored. His strikeout rate went like so:

  • 2015: 30.6 percent
  • 2016: 22.0 percent

Bryant's swing change invited a big question: Would more contact mean less power?

Apparently not. And that was no accident. 

Today's big hitting buzzwords are "launch angle" (the angle at which the ball leaves the bat) and "exit velocity" (the speed at which the ball leaves the bat). Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight highlighted the optimal combination of the two last spring: "The very best hitters in MLB tend to smack lots of balls with launch angles around 25 degrees and exit velocities above 90 miles per hour."

Bryant's new swing didn't stop him from finding that sweet spot. He went from 79 batted balls with a launch angle over 25 degrees and exit velocity over 90 mph in 2015 to 110 such balls in 2016—the most of any hitter in MLB.

Kris Bryant has the perfect swing for power hitting.
Kris Bryant has the perfect swing for power hitting.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Make no mistake: The top priority for Bryant in 2017 is keeping all of this up. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

His next priority? Why don't you ask him?

"I want to get back to hitting the ball to right field," Bryant told Gonzales earlier in January. "In the minor leagues, that's where most of my power was. I was pitched inside so often to a point I pulled the ball very well. I'm sure guys are going to pitch me [away more now]. That's what they did in the minor leagues, and I want to get back to what I was doing so well."

Once again, Bryant's attention is where it should be. 

The righty swinger has been a dead-pull hitter, knocking 44.4 percent of his batted balls to left field. This isn't a bad habit. Hitters are most productive when they pull the ball. Bryant typifies that with a 1.581 career OPS to left field.

However, some opposite-field production would be nice. Bryant had just a .417 OPS to right field in 2016, fourth-lowest among qualified right-handed batters.

However, Bryant's ability to make good use of the opposite field does exist. Courtesy of MLBFarm.com, his story about having oppo power in the minors checks out:

Image courtesy of MLBFarm.com.

Look at all of those home runs to the right of center field. Want to know how many of those Bryant has hit as a major leaguer? Just six. And he doesn't have many singles, doubles or triples in that direction, either.

Bryant does have excuses for neglecting the opposite field. He mentioned being challenged to turn on inside pitches. He also plays at a home ballpark that suppresses opposite-field hitting for righty batters.

"At our place, the wind is blowing in so much, if the ball's hit to the right side, the ball's going to hold up and it's not going to go anywhere," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said last summer, per MLB.com's Mike Petriello. "But if you hit it to the left side, it's going to go."

Still, there are benefits Bryant could reap from going oppo more often.

It could help keep defenses honest, for starters. Bryant hit into more shifts in 2016 than all right-handed hitters except Albert Pujols and Edwin Encarnacion. Although those didn't suffocate his numbers, his .739 OPS against the shift wasn't anything to write home about.

After that, there's the possibility of Bryant expanding his plate coverage.

It's mostly been limited to the inner two-thirds of the strike zone and beyond. As he's cleaned up there, he's struggled to do much against pitches on and beyond the outside edge:

  • Vs. Inside Pitches: .321 AVG, .653 SLUG
  • Vs. Outside Pitches: .227 AVG, .325 SLUG

The average righty batter hit .219 with a .319 slugging percentage against outside pitches in 2016. Thus, any pitcher who got Bryant to commit outside could knock him down a few pegs.

That's partially to do with how Bryant is as prone as the next hitter to whiffs on outside pitches. It also has to do with his habits when he does make contact with outside pitches. Here's a look:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.com.

Not pictured here is much booming contact. What there is instead is a lot of weak contact on the infield, soft singles to left and center and a plethora of can-of-corn fly balls to right.

It's basically what you'd expect to see from a hitter whose M.O. has been to pull everything. Good thing his hitting coach has his ear with some good advice.

"It's letting the ball travel and try to hit through the ball to the opposite field," John Mallee told Gonzales.

He added: "You know at certain points they will pitch you away. If you don't try to hit the ball to the opposite field and take what they give you, then you're not going to be the complete hitter you can be. And he wants to be as complete as can be."

With an eye good enough to draw walks and a swing that produces both power and contact, Bryant is complete enough as is. If he follows through on his opposite-field goal in 2017, he will indeed be as complete as he can be.

And that'll be that.

This isn't just a good hitter, after all. Bryant is already a superb baserunner despite the modest speed that comes from his hulking 6'5" frame. He's also rated as a quality fielder in left field and right field in addition to third base, making him a highly valuable all-around defender.

Bryant's bat is thus his only asset that still has some untapped potential. Once he gets into that, it'll be safe to say he has this whole baseball thing figured out.

        

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and Baseball Savant unless otherwise noted/linked.

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