Imagine you are on the mound. You toe the rubber and peer toward home plate to read the signs from your battery mate. As you wind up and begin your delivery, you find yourself blinded by a mesmerizing beam of blue light coming from the batter’s eyes. Less than a second after releasing the ball, you hear a crack. The sound is all too familiar. As you slowly begin to regain your focus, you glance over toward third base as the batter approaches the home stretch in a steady jog. The name on his back reads, “Bryant.”
The legend of the blue-eyed phenom is only beginning.
Kris Bryant is not your average baseball player. He’s a first-round draft pick (second overall), former number-one prospect in all of baseball as ranked by Baseball America, winner of multiple awards throughout his minor league career, and, despite having just turned 24 years old, is one of the most feared hitters in the game of baseball.
Oh, and he won the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Award.
After spending the first couple weeks of the 2015 season in Triple-A as the Chicago Cubs pulled a slick move in order to keep him under team control for an extra year, Bryant burst on the scene and continued what he started in Spring Training, where he posted a .425 average and mashed nine home runs over 40 at-bats. He didn’t hit his first major league home run until May 9, his 21st career game, but once they started, they never stopped.
Bryant finished his impressive rookie year with 26 home runs and a .275/.369/.488 slash line en route to ROY honors. There are, however, a couple caveats. Bryant led the National League with 199 strikeouts and posted an abnormally high BABIP of .378.
Many are left wondering if a sophomore slump is imminent for Bryant. A high BABIP is typically a sign of good luck, though some might argue that a skilled player has a great deal of control over where they hit the ball. There is also a correlation between exit velocity and BABIP. Basically, if a player consistently hits the ball harder, more balls should find grass instead of the inside of a fielder’s glove.
Last year’s top ten in BABIP includes some recognizable names – Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, and Bryce Harper, to name a few of them. These are talented ballplayers who get on base a lot thanks to solid, hard contact.
As more data is becoming available to us, we are overflowing with ways to dissect hitters, break down their tendencies, and predict what to expect from them in the future. A batter’s exit velocity measures how fast the ball comes off the bat when contact is made.
Anything above 90 MPH is considered a pretty solid average exit velocity. There are some recognizable names in that group – Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Bryce … wait, didn’t I already write this line?
Kris Bryant’s average exit velocity in 2015 was 89.33 MPH.
A solid argument opposing the idea of a sophomore slump would be that as Bryant gets stronger, his exit velocity will increase, and therefore the likelihood of balls in play finding holes would increase.
The strikeouts, however, are a different story. Bryant had streaks last year of seven (twice), eight (twice), nine, and 12 consecutive games with at least one strikeout. An argument could be made that Bryant will likely become more disciplined as he becomes more experienced with major-league pitching. This will hopefully decrease his strikeout numbers and allow him to put even more balls in play. Bryant did draw 77 walks last season. Over 46% of Bryant’s plate appearances last season resulted in one of the three true outcomes — home run, walk, or strikeout.
Kris Bryant is a rare talent and has the potential to put up some very impressive numbers if he can improve his plate discipline and, of course, stay healthy. Call me crazy, but I do believe his high BABIP is sustainable, to an extent. For reference, the record for highest career BABIP in baseball history is .383, held by Hall of Famer Ty Cobb. The active record is held by Votto, who has a career .362 BABIP.
Bryant will continue to improve as he gets older, hopefully making more consistent contact. His BABIP will likely recede slightly from its lofty levels, but should still be well above the league average of .300. Given another full season or two, Bryant may be able to curtail his strikeouts and approach the .300-plus batting average posted in the minor leagues. While his defense is not quite on the same level as the likes of Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, or Manny Machado, but Bryant has a chance to solidify himself as one of the best third basemen in the game for years to come.