Tuesday July 26th, 2016

Kris Bryant cruised to the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2015, winning it unanimously after hitting .275/.369/.488 with 26 homers and 99 RBIs in his age-23 season. It was a predictably great debut season for a player who dominated in college, was the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft and tore his way through the minors as the best player at every level while he was there.

This season, Bryant has immediately gone from Rookie of the Year to even more impressive territory: the MVP discussion. He’s slashing .286/.379/.550 with 25 homers and 65 RBIs in 430 plate appearances. Should he be named the National League MVP, he’d be the fifth player in major league history to win a Rookie of the Year and MVP award in his first two seasons, joining Fred Lynn, Ichiro Suzuki, Ryan Howard and Dustin Pedroia.

There was one hole in Bryant’s game during his rookie season: He struck out in 30.6% of his plate appearances, finishing that year with the third-highest strikeout rate in the majors. When you do everything else he did, especially at 23 years old, it’s easy to overlook the strikeouts, but it still loomed as a potential problem for years to come. The whiffs were a real threat to keep him at “elite power hitter” without ever entering the “perennial MVP candidate” category.

Guess what? That hole is gone. Bryant’s strikeout rate is down at 22.8% this season, tied with Joey Votto and Matt Kemp for 37th in the league and just a touch higher than the 21% league average. It’s a perfectly acceptable level of strikeouts for a guy who can also give his team a .280 batting average and .380 on-base percentage and potentially lead the league in homers.

Players with Bryant’s pedigree who immediately succeed to the tune of winning the Rookie of the Year in unanimous fashion are supposed to make the necessary adjustments to reach their full potential. That still doesn’t mean that all of them do so, or that it’s easy to cover up a hole once the league has found it. Bryant did that, all in the space of one off-season. As good as he is and was always supposed to be, that’s still a feat worth examining.

One of the most interesting characteristics on the back of Bryant’s baseball card is that little has changed from last year. Sure, he has hit for a bit more power and done so more consistently, but that’s to be expected for a guy who’s still in the first half of his 20s. He’s hitting the ball even harder this year—Bryant’s 40.2% hard-hit rate is tied for 14th in the league—but he was already at 37.5% as a rookie. Bryant’s ground-ball, fly-ball and line-drive rates haven’t changed much. His walk rate is nearly identical to what it was last season. He has a little more natural power and a year’s worth of seasoning under his belt, but the most important factor in turning him into an MVP candidate is his significantly increased contact rate.

We can drill down into Bryant’s plate discipline stats, thanks to the fine folks with Pitch F/X and Fangraphs, to discover that here, too, not much has changed. Last year he swung at 29.8% of pitches he saw out of the zone; this year he’s at 28.6%. Last year he swung at 76.2% of pitches that were in the zone; this year that number sits at 75.4%. His overall swing rate is down a touch to 48.6% from 49%, which, over the course of a full season, isn’t much of a difference.

Bryant isn’t striking out less because he’s keeping his bat on the shoulder more often; he’s striking out less because he’s making more contact across the board. His contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone has increased to 55.1% from 49.2%, and on pitches in the zone, it has jumped to 80% from 75.8%. Overall, Bryant’s contact rate is at 71.6% this season, whereas it was 66.3% last season, and his whiff rate has dropped to 13.7% from 16.5%. Bryant is largely the same hitter he was as a rookie; he’s just making a ton more contact.

How has Bryant done it? For that, we want to go to the video. Here’s Bryant belting a homer in 2015.

And here he is taking Jacob deGrom deep before the All-Star break this season.

I slowed the GIFs down considerably so we could closely watch Bryant going through his load and uncorking his vicious, uppercut swing. There are two noticeable changes between 2015 Bryant and ’16 Bryant. He is a bit more crouched in his stance this season than he was last year, and his hands start a little lower and closer to his body. You can get a good look at the difference in his hand placement from season to season in the two screenshots below. The first one is from last year.

Nothing else is different. The swing is the same. The lower half, including Bryant’s stride, is the same. The finish is absolutely the same.

Bryant has tweaked a few things in his setup, but from there he looks identical in the way he attacks a pitch to last year. So are those two changes—the lower crouch and shift in his hand placement—responsible for his higher contact rate this season? Unfortunately, that’s impossible for us to say definitively. More likely than not, it’s a combination of those two adjustments and the fact that he was all of 23 years old last year; no matter how naturally talented a player is, baseball is a hard game. Bryant made two noticeable adjustments, but he also racked up 687 plate appearances last year, including the playoffs. That experience could be just as responsible for him slashing his strikeout rate as the changes he made at the plate.

No matter what, though, the diminished K-rate is for real, closing the only real hole in Bryant’s game. He’s just 24 and in his second season of the majors, but he has joined the Perennial MVP Candidate Club.

Hitters to Watch This Week

Trevor Story, SS, Rockies

Story is coming off a weekend series against the Braves in which he racked up seven hits, including four homers, and nine RBIs in four games. The 23-year-old already has the NL record for homers by a shortstop in his rookie season and will almost certainly become the third middle infielder to post a 30-homer season before turning 24 years old, joining Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. Story’s performance has been a bit uneven this year, but the power hasn’t abandoned him at any point, and he’s looking at his second monthly OPS of better than 1.000, assuming he can stay the course this week.

Ryan Schimpf, 2B/3B, Padres

Before this season, Schimpf’s had played all of 98 games at Triple A. Forget about being a Quadruple A player: The 28-year-old appeared stuck between Double and Triple A and was a longshot to ever make the majors. But he forced his way to the big leagues this season after hitting .355/.432/.729 with 15 homers in 51 games at Triple A El Paso, a stat line that was incredibly unlikely—he hit .200/.270/.336 at Triple A last year and .189/.290/.358 at the highest level in the minors in 2014.

What’s even more unlikely is Schimpf’s power surge in the majors. He has nine homers and a .620 slugging percentage in 110 plate appearances and has likely earned himself a regular spot in the San Diego lineup. It’s incredibly unlikely that he’ll be able to keep any semblance of this up, but he’s worth a shot while he’s swinging the bat this well.

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Tigers

Kinsler’s not going to win the AL MVP this season, but let’s just stop and appreciate the year he is having. The 34-year-old is in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career, slashing .291/.346/.502 with 20 homers, 19 doubles and 10 steals. He has 80 runs hitting atop the potent Detroit lineup but still has been a factor for his owners in the RBI department, driving in 57 of his own. And while Kinsler is having his worst month in terms of OBP (.326), he’s still hitting .277 with a .554 slugging percentage.

Jedd Gyorko, 1B/2B/3B/SS, Cardinals

Gyorko had a monster week, going 10 for 27 with five homers and eight RBIs in his last seven games. That upped his season slash line to .257/.315/.476 and kept him in the Cardinals' lineup despite being a part-time player. We’ve seen power binges like this from Gyorko in the past, and none of the previous ones have led to him turning into the consistent fantasy weapon it seemed like he’d become early in his career. Still, when he gets hot, there’s a lot to like about him, especially thanks to his eligibility at four different positions.

Tyler Naquin, OF, Indians

We recommended Naquin as a player to add in all leagues this week’s waiver wire column. He celebrated by going 1 for 4 with an RBI on Sunday, but we’ll give him a pass thanks to a month of July during which he has hit .305/.359/.678 with six homers. The 25-year-old is slashing .321/.380/.626 with 12 jacks on the year, bringing a ton of pop to the bottom of the Cleveland lineup. The fact that he hasn’t been able to climb into the middle of the order is the only factor that limits his fantasy value, but we could see him up a few spots if he continues to hit as well as he has for the last two months.

Prospect Watch

Alex Bregman, SS, Astros

The Astros finally made the inevitable official when they promoted Bregman, their top prospect, to the majors of the weekend. He ends his minor league season, and possibly his minor league career, after hitting .297/.415/.559 with 14 homers in 62 games at Double A Corpus Christi and .333/.373/.641 with six homers in 18 games at Triple A Fresno. Bregman had little more to prove in the minors, especially when the Astros are chipping away at the Rangers' lead in the AL West.

The question now is where does Bregman play? He’s a shortstop by trade, but that position is spoken for in Houston with previous top prospect Carlos Correa entrenched at the most important spot on the field. The natural pivot for a shorstop is to move to the other side of the middle infield, but that position, too, is taken, with MVP candidate Jose Altuve locked in at second base. Bregman got time at third base and in leftfield in the minors, and those are his only two realistic landings spots in Houston, at least for this season. Houston third basemen—almost entirely Luis Valbuena—rank 22nd in the league in weighted on-base average, though to be fair, Valbuena’s .253/.350/.455 line isn’t a trainwreck and would be a realistic projected ceiling for Bregman the rest of the season. Out in left, meanwhile, Colby Rasmus, Jake Marisnick, Preston Tucker and Tony Kemp have combined for the fourth-worst wOBA in the league.

The bet here is that Bregman, if he can handle the defensive transition, gets more time in left than he does at third. No matter what, though, he’s going to get enough playing time to be immediately relevant in all fantasy formats.

GIF of the Week

Just your garden variety 4-1-5 double play that includes a great play by the second baseman—in this case Starlin Castro—to kick things off.

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