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Adjusting to Kris Bryant

The Cubbies’ star is suffering a bit of a power brownout. What’s up?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Chicago Cubs Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It feels almost wrong to nickpick too much when a superstar is merely playing like a top 25 player rather than top ten. But baseball fans get used to things, and quickly form expectations. It’s why every player’s decline is greeted by some sort of surprise, even if Father Time is undefeated. That’s not the case with Kris Bryant. If anything he still has his prime to look forward to. But right now, in 2018, he’s falling short of the lofty standards he’s set for himself in his young career.

In his first three years, Bryant quickly placed himself in best-in-the-game conversations. Between 2015-17, only two players – Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson - have been more valuable than Bryant’s 20.6 fWAR. All three have been MVP winners, all three considered the face of their franchise if not baseball. Bryant has improved each year too, walking more and striking out less as the seasons wore on. While his walk rate has fallen two points from a season ago to 11.8 percent it’s still (tied for) his second best career mark and above league average, and the 20.1 percent K rate is likewise second best of his career and a far cry from the 30.6 percent of his rookie year.

The only real knock to his season is the slippage in power numbers. He’s slugging .483, his lowest since 2015, and his Isolated Slugging has slipped to .202, the lowest of his career. The magic of Bryant has been his ability to do utterly everything and look like a movie star while he does it. He can still do a lot – again, he’ still 22nd in WAR at 2.3 and 26th in wRC+ at 137. But again, he’s not a top 25 player. He’s supposed to be a top ten player. Where’s the power?

One thing about Bryant, something you could call a flaw, is a relative weakness against breaking pitches. It was something that came up in 2016 when they faced the Indians in the World Series. The Cubs as a team were the worst in baseball in exit velocity, batting average and contact rate against breaking pitches (sliders, curves and knuckle curves). This was not a problem that Bryant was divorced from. It’s also not a problem that’s left him. This year against those same pitches Bryant owns a .161 batting average and an 86.1 mph exit velocity (smidge off his season overall number, 87.1). On curves this year he’s whiffing 11.4 percent of the time, and 14.4 percent of the time on sliders according to Both marks are above his 10.5 percent season rate.

This is only important because Bryant is just seeing more curves than he ever has, and way fewer fastballs:

Kris Bryant pitches seen percentage

Year Curve% Slider% Fastball%
Year Curve% Slider% Fastball%
2016 9.3 19.4 51.9
2017 9.5 18.3 55.0
2018 11.0 19.1 49.4

This does at least partially match with the league-wide drop in fastball usage over that stretch, from 56.7 percent in 2016 to 55.3 percent this year, though while sliders as a whole have seen an uptick (up 1.1 percent the last two years to 16.3 percent) curve use hasn’t really budged at all.

Everyone is always adapting in baseball, pitchers trying to find new ways to get batters out and batters trying to figure out the hurlers. Stars of Bryant’s stature are under the biggest microscope because they can shape the outcome game more than anyone else. It makes sense that Bryant would have to deal with that as any star does. Look at the best in baseball, Mike Trout. He had a weakness – swinging at high fastballs – and he adjusted to it. This is what Bryant needs to do. Like with Trout, sometimes you just need to not try to do everything.

This whole article is moot if Bryant goes off for a multi-hit game with a couple doubles and a home run. If he goes on a small hot streak – say just 12 total bases in his next eight at-bats – that slugging percentage shoots up over .500 and we’re not having any worries because all his numbers look alright. He’s been worth a multi-homer game or two each season, and getting to face the still moribund Reds can cure a lot of hitters’ ills. So maybe this is all a bunch of noise over nothing. But he’s the one who’s seeing a whole different look from pitchers as a whole. He’s still the one who has to make the adjustment. After his start we have a lot of expectation, and his best years are supposedly ahead of him. Adversity is what makes stars, legends. This is a small dose of that for Bryant. His response to it will be an interesting entry into the tale of his career.

Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball analysis here at Beyond the Box Score, and writes and podcasts Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He does other things with his life too, really. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch