April 17, 2015
How Bryant Can Crush
Today is the day. Cubs fans have waited 12 days (well, technically the buzz has been building since last summer) for the monumental occasion that is a rookie walking onto the field. Despite all the drama at the start of the season, the franchise that has waited over 100 years for a World Series title settled down and showed their trademark patience by waiting for their newest import from Iowa. Kris Bryant will take the field after honing his defense at the Triple-A level to make sure he’s up to big-league standards. Apparently he’s a decent hitter too.
Bryant is going to hit balls that travel an embarrassingly long distance. He showed that ability during spring training when he hit so many home runs it was easier to keep track using scientific notation. Is Bryant a middle of the order bat? Absolutely! Is Bryant going to put on a show at Wrigley? Absolutely! Does his swing have holes? Absolutely! Wait that last part wasn’t good. Should there be panic in Chicago? No, every hitter has holes.
Bryant’s swing is very interesting, so let’s break it down. The good, the bad, and the turtle-y. All of it.
Bryant's stance is like he is trying to straddle Crush from Finding Nemo. Of course it’s built into his stance intentionally.
Bryant starts from an extremely wide stance. It’s not a base recommended for most, but Bryant has learned how to move with that wide base. He starts with the bat laid nearly flat across his shoulders. I really dig his first move. He cocks the bat up by slightly lowering his hands and allowing his back elbow to work up. It’s not a huge move, but it gets him into a strong point to launch his swing. As he goes through those moves with his upper body his lower half is active as well. He takes a small initial stride onto a pointed toe. During that stride his hips move toward to the pitcher while going through a small coil.
The bigger forward movement happens as he goes from landing on his toe to dropping his heel. It’s a move that reminds me of J.D. Martinez. Both hitters have a big forward surge with their hips without major length to their strides. Both Martinez and Bryant create energy with this move. From this point on Bryant’s swing gets unique.
Bryant’s swing is built to hammer pitches low in the zone. Watch the relationship between his back elbow and hands. As soon as his back elbow turns his hands go with them. On low pitches this is awesome because Bryant is in a place to do serious damage. However, on everything above the knees, it’s a different story. Look how Miguel Cabrera’s and Ted Williams’ hands work.
As their back elbows turn, their hands don’t immediately change elevation. Stealing a term from BP’s own Colin Young, Cabrera’s and Williams’ hands go weightless for a moment, then deliver the barrel. I’ve yet to see Bryant show that pattern. That doesn’t mean he can’t learn it, but it just gives him something to work on.
Another issue present in Bryant’s swing is a narrow timing window to decide whether to launch his swing or hold up. Bryant has an extremely quick trigger in his swing. He has tons of bat speed, but it happens almost all at once rather than more gradual sequence, akin to Jose Bautista or Josh Donaldson. Those two guys build bat speed behind them—I can’t take credit for this term, but their bats get a running start—then decide whether to swing or take. Bautista and Donaldson can make slight adjustments to their bats in flight to aid in contact. In Bryant’s case, when he decides to launch the bat that’s it. If his initial read of the ball is off, he doesn’t have the fluidity built into his swing to make a late adjustment.
I want to highlight some cool movements within Bryant’s swing. Using footage from Jerry Brewer (@JerryBrewerEBHI on twitter), I want to show three key movements in Bryant’s swing.
This is a just a cool clip. Bryant’s hands might not have the big movements of a Donaldson or Bautista, but he does do a good job of keeping them back initially. As his hips begin to open, his hands aren’t pushing forward, they’re waiting to explode through the zone. Not only are his hips working, but look at his feet; as soon as his front heel lands, he’s starting to drive off his back foot. His back heel begins to move up right at the very end of the clip. This clip gives the viewer a chance to see all the little things Bryant does before his bat ever moves forward.
This clip is more of a mixed bag. The upper body is working very well and the position of his arms in this clip is great. His back arm is at about a 90-degree angle and his lead arm is progressing through nicely. Both his left hand and elbow are above the ball, which puts his barrel on the right path. His lower body, however, is more worrisome. Like many power hitters, Bryant hits against a stiff front leg, but he almost has too much of a good thing going on. He’s so aggressive blocking his front side that it impacts other areas in his lower body. Take a look at his hips and note how they float up. That can happen in a good swing, but usually at the very end. Bryant’s hips are moving up as he’s delivering his barrel. Albert Pujols, another wide-stance brethren, is able to keep his hips level and only elevate at the last instance.
This last clip is just to show how steep his bat is moving on an upward slope from contact to finish. You see this more in power hitters as opposed to a flatter finish. Williams advocated for a slight uppercut swing, but Bryant’s is well beyond slight. Bryant’s steep plane may actually help match plane on breaking balls, but as an overall movement I wish he weren’t so extreme with it.
All this info is great, but what does it mean in terms of performance? Bryant is going to hit homers off pitches low in the zone. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a fastball or breaking ball, Bryant will crush it if it’s in that location. Especially if the ball is away from him, allowing Bryant to quickly turn that pitch into a souvenir. Pitchers always get told the importance of hitting that spot low and away from batters, but they will have to ditch that strategy against Bryant. The strategy against Bryant should be to give him velocity above the belt on the inner third and force him to adjust.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Bryant takes the league by storm at first. Here’s a hitter who is built to hit the pitches in locations that pitchers love to throw. He’s probably going to hit some long home runs even when down in the count, because he will reach out and smash a breaking ball that wasn’t quite far enough off the plate. The key to Bryant is what happens when the book is out on him.
Bryant is going to be fun to watch. He has serious strength and a track record of launching homers. Here’s why hitting is the greatest and most maddening thing in the world: Even a guy like Bryant who comes in and immediately figures to be an impact bat can always improve. Cubs fans, it’s wild to think, but Bryant is good now and he has room to get even better.