For the first three seasons Kris Bryant was in the league, he was consistently one of the best hitters in the game of baseball. His back-to-back-to-back six-plus win seasons propelled him to capture the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL MVP Awards, not to mention helped the Chicago Cubs reach and win their first World Series title in 108 years.
With expectations of more of the same from Bryant entering 2018, it looked early on that’s what fans and his teammates would see from the 26-year-old slugger. Bryant hit .280 with an .864 OPS through June 22, his final game before being placed on the disabled list with left shoulder soreness. A 10-game return in mid-July would lead to another DL stint, this time of more than a month, and a player that had not been injured in three seasons at the major league level suddenly was in the middle of an injury plagued season.
After missing the entire month of August, Bryant made his return to the Cubs’ lineup on September 1. While the former MVP has hit .286 since his return, he has yet to make a real impact on the club, something the Cubs will need from their slugger if they wish to recapture October glory.
“KB” Hasn’t Been the Same
As mentioned above, Bryant is hitting .286 in September, which if it holds, would be his second highest mark for a month this season. However, that solid batting average is masking the fact that of Bryant’s 10 hits since his return, six of them have been singles with the other four going for two bases. That means Bryant has not hit a home run since July 20, giving him just 11 on the season, two years removed from his 39 long-ball performance.
That drop in power has been noticeable throughout the season, as Bryant owned an ISO north of .200 through the end of May. Since posting a .202 mark in the first half of the season, the slugger has logged a .123 clip, including a .114 mark thus far in September. Bryant’s drop in ISO has accompanied a decrease in his wRC+, a number that now sits at 109 for September and 101 since the All-Star break.
Since making his return to the lineup, Bryant’s hard hit rate has actually increased, largely due to the small sample size during the month of July. Currently, Bryant is sitting on a 25 percent hard contact rate this month, up from 16.1 percent in July and 24.5 percent in June. However, when the youngster was going right, he posted hard hit rates of 34.9 and 44.7 percent in the first two-plus months of the season respectively.
Bryant’s drop in hard contact has been linked to an increase in medium contact. After posting rates right around 45 percent through June, those numbers spiked to 71 and 66.7 percent in the last two months. In addition, Bryant’s ground ball took a steep incline during the month of July, hitting 54.8 percent, more than double what it was in May, before falling to a more reasonable 20.8 percent so far in September. By not hitting the ball on the ground so much since his return from the DL, Bryant has made up for it by hitting more fly balls. Currently at 50 percent for the month, the slugger’s fly ball rate is his second highest of the season by month and does not bode well when combined with his high medium contact rate.
Even with Bryant’s MVP-caliber start to the season, his lackluster play and percentages since are starting to show up in his overall numbers. During his rookie season, Bryant barreled balls up at an 11.5 percent clip, which ranked in the top seven percent of the league. Since topping out at 11.9 percent two years ago, that number dropped off to 9.6 percent last season and currently sits at 9.8 percent in 2018. While that number is still solidly average the league average of 6.1 percent, that drop-off over the last two years should not go unnoticed.
Bryant’s barrel percentage is not the only thing on the decrease. His average exit velocity of 86.4 MPH would be the lowest — if it holds — of the slugger’s career, beating last years mark of 87.1 MPH and sitting more than three MPH off the number he posted as a rookie.
Inability to Hit Breaking Pitches
A calling card for Bryant the last few seasons has been his ability to hit breaking pitches. Primarily sliders and curveballs, Bryant’s batting average on breaking pitches sat at .266 during the 2016 and ’17 seasons. In 2016, Bryant slugged .510 on those pitches with a xwOBA of .334 and an average exit velocity of 88.8 MPH.
Those numbers dipped slightly in 2017 as Bryant slugged .443 with a xwOBA of .290, but this season his numbers on breaking pitches have fallen off drastically. Through Wednesday’s action, Bryant is hitting just .188 on the soft stuff this season. That number is accompanied by a .297 slugging percentage and a xwOBA of just .259. As one might imagine, Bryant’s exit velocity on breaking pitches has taken a downturn as well and currently sits at 84.8 MPH, the lowest of his career. To make matters worst, Bryant’s launch angle on the pitches this season is 25 degrees, the highest it has ever been, suggesting the slugger is getting under the offerings more often.
While Bryant’s strikeout and whiff percentages on breaking pitches have actually come down this year, the youngster is chasing more total pitches outside of the strike zone. Right now, Bryant’s chase percentage sits at 29.3 percent, more than four and a half points higher than last season. Additionally, Bryant is making less contact when he does chase as his chase contact rate is almost four points lower than one year ago. Perhaps to cap things off, the youngster has also seen a decrease in his zone contact percent (78.1 percent) after posting numbers in the 80-82 percentage range each of the last two seasons.
It’s hard to say if Bryant’s struggles on breaking pitches have led to him chasing more pitches out of the zone and missing an increased amount of offerings in the zone. However, these issues have not helped Bryant during an injury riddled season that will likely see him finish with less than 15 home runs on the year.
While his overall production numbers are understandable, the Cubs need Bryant to carry a large part of their offense over the next two weeks if they wish to be successful and make the postseason. Since September 1, the Cubs own one of the weaker offenses in the game. Their 75 wRC+ as a group is the sixth lowest in baseball in that span while a lackluster .137 ISO is eighth lowest in the league.
To make matter worse, the Cubs own a 28 percent strikeout rate since the flip of the calendar into September, the second highest in baseball while at the same time posting the seventh lowest walk rate (6.5 percent).
Those are all important categories Bryant can help this team in but is currently not doing so. With two weeks remaining in the regular season and the Cubs’ division lead down to just one game, it is do or die for the offense and Kris Bryant. Without their MVP performing like he should in the middle of the lineup, it will be increasingly hard for the Cubs to right the ship. However, we all know Bryant has the capability to carry an offense and now would be a great time for him to flash that skill once again.
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