Kris Bryant burst onto the scene in Chicago in mid-April of 2015. Following a short stint in the minors to begin the 2015 campaign, Bryant lit the North Side on fire. At 23 years old, Bryant logged 650 plate appearances for the Chicago Cubs in his debut season. In those appearances, the right-hander slashed .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBIs.
Along with a well-above league average 135 OPS+, the young slugger swiped 13 bases and played five different defensive positions. Those positions included third base, every outfield spot, and first base. After amassing a spectacular rookie season that included five triples, 31 doubles, and 154 hits, Bryant won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. By earning that honor, Bryant became just the sixth Chicago Cub to win the award joining Billy Williams, Ken Hubbs, Jerome Walton, Kerry Wood, and Geovany Soto.
Primed for an improved campaign in 2016, Bryant did not disappoint fans. In 155 games and 699 plates appearances, the right-hander recorded 176 knocks, including 35 doubles, and three triples. Also embedded in those hits were 39 home runs, helping to produce 102 RBIs. Bryant’s .385 OBP was good enough for 14th in the National League behind teammate Ben Zobrist and tied with fellow slugger Anthony Rizzo.
In addition, the young third baseman’s 148 WRC+ put him in the top ten while his 7.8 WAR ranked third in the game. For Bryant’s efforts, the 24-year-old won the NL Most Valuable Player Award and was selected to his second All-Star game.
After posting two seasons which landed Bryant a stack of accolades, Bryant entered the 2017 season looking to lead the Cubs back to the World Series. While Chicago failed to reach that goal, instead failing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, the now 25-year-old Bryant turned in a third straight above average season. Even though Bryant fell just short of 30 home runs (29), the right-hander logged a .334 BABIP and .409 OBP. Those numbers are good but what is even better is the fact that Bryant struck out 2.8% less in 2017 compared to his MVP campaign and walked 3.6% more.
Bryant’s 2018 is off to a great start
Following what some would call a down season in 2017, Bryant has jumped out to a fast start in 2018. In three March games to kick off the season, the 26-year-old logged six hits, including three doubles and a home run in 15 at-bats for a batting average of .400.
Now, mid-way through April it appears Bryant’s fast start could be a sign of what is to come this season. In 13 games thus far (64 plate appearances), Bryant has five doubles, a triple, two home runs, and 17 total hits. To put that into perspective, Bryant had just 18 hits in the first 24 games of 2017. That hot start means Bryant is slashing .333/.469/.588. Along with that, the slugger has logged a wRC+ of 188, 40 percentage points higher than his MVP season of 2016.Kris Bryant is doing everything well to start 2018, and will be in the MVP conversation by the end of the year if he keeps this up.Click To Tweet
A deeper look into the stats makes a fan of the Cubs very happy, and here’s why: When Bryant broke into the majors, he was striking out almost 31% of the time and drawing a walk less than 12% of the time. Thus far this season, Bryant is earning a base-on-balls 14.1% of the time (0.2% less than last season), and perhaps more importantly, striking out at a career low 12.5%. When I say career low, I do not mean just big league career but rather entire professional career dating back to 2013 when Bryant was in rookie ball. A career low strike out rate coupled with a solid walk rate means Bryant is drawing 1.13 walks per strike out. In fact, through 13 games, Bryant has more walks than punch outs, something teammate Anthony Rizzo accomplished last season.
Bryant’s fast start goes even deeper than that. So far, Bryant is hitting line drives 37.2% of the time, an increase of more than 17% compared to last season. That high line-drive percentage means the right-hander is hitting the ball harder, a fact that is backed up by his 39.5% hard hit rate (6.7% increase from last season).
Bryant is seeing fewer fastballs but he’s making it work
Coming out of college, some scouting reports including this one from Mike Rosenbaum for Bleacher Report suggested Bryant might struggle against off-speed pitches. For that reason, the youngster is seeing an increase in those offerings. In 2017, Bryant saw fastballs almost 55% of the time up from just under 52% a year prior.
This season, however, the percentage of fastballs thrown to Bryant has dropped to under 51%. That, in turn, has caused the percentage of curveballs and change-ups thrown to spike. Curveball usage against Bryant has increased every year since 2015, topping out at 11.1% thus far in 2018 (1.6% increase from last season). The biggest jump in pitch usage has come with the change-up. After facing change-ups 10.8% of the time in 2017, Bryant has seen the pitch 16.5% of the time on the young season.
As the statistics above have helped to outline, Kris Bryant is not suffering against the adjustments pitchers have made. Quite the opposite is taking place, actually. While pitchers have done their homework against Bryant, the young slugger has done equally if not more work in finding a pitchers’ weakness and using it to his advantage.
Over the course of baseball’s 100-plus year history, it has been the great players that have been able to adjust and turn a weakness into a strength. Even though it is early in the season with more than 145 games to be played, Bryant is setting himself up nicely for another run at National League MVP.
Even if “KB” falls short, the first 13 games of the 2018 season have proven that the 26-year-old is willing to put in the work to get better and close gaps in his game. Because of that drive, Bryant will no doubt be in the discussion for MVP this season and he may even win the dang thing.