CHICAGO (AP) — For all the towering home runs he hit in his NL Rookie of the Year season, something else stood out to the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant.
"I think I could have had an even better year," he said.
Seems like a harsh critique for someone who established himself as one of the game’s best young players a year ago. But Bryant wasn’t satisfied. He leveled his swing a bit in an effort to produce solid contact on a more consistent basis, and both he and the Cubs believe the change is paying off in big way.
The 24-year-old Bryant is on pace to finish with more home runs and RBIs as well as fewer strikeouts. The Cubs, meanwhile, own the best record in the majors after reaching the NLCS a year ago.
"Knowing Kris, he’s a perfectionist and he wants to be the best that he can possibly be," hitting coach John Mallee said. "If there’s any adjustment that he can make, he’s gonna try to make it."
Chosen with the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, Bryant became an All-Star on a breakthrough team that won 97 games and sparked hope that a championship drought dating to 1908 could be in its final stages.
He batted .275 after being called up April 17 and led rookies with 26 homers, 31 doubles and 99 RBIs as Chicago made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
"I just saw some things I wanted to change," Bryant said. "And I went about it."
Bryant hit the longest homer in the majors last season — a 495-foot drive off Arizona’s Rubby De La Rosa at Wrigley Field on Sept. 6. But for all the majestic drives, he saw too many foul balls and popups he thought he should have crushed.
That was something he and Mallee started trying to correct last season, and Bryant kept it up in the offseason through video and drills.
While his average (.279) was about the same, he was ahead of last year’s pace with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs through Wednesday. He was also headed for 165 strikeouts compared to 199.
"If you can change the concepts, you can change the swing," Mallee said. "Once you get the proper concepts in your mind, then the swing follows that. When he understood the proper concept of how to get on the plane with the pitch early and stay on plane with the pitch long, then he was able to make that adjustment with his path."
While the uppercut helped produce those majestic drives, Bryant wanted to turn some of those fouls and popups into line drives. By leveling the swing, he keeps the bat in the hitting zone longer and reduces the launch angle — the angle at which the ball leaves the bat.
Going for a few more line drives makes sense particularly when it’s cold at Wrigley Field, a park that plays small in warm weather but can also be a pitcher’s best friend early and late in the season.
Bryant said he in general isn’t one to tinker too much and downplayed the extent of the change, saying it was as much mental as it was mechanical. But the results are noticeable.
Bryant’s average launch angle through Wednesday was at 17.16, according to MLB’s Statcast computer system. That was well above the major league average of 11.36 but down from last season, when he had one of the highest in baseball at 19.2.
"I’ve always had a steeper swing just because I’m a taller baseball player," the 6-foot-5 Bryant said. "Just watching video this offseason, kind of just seeing some of the pitches I was missing and kind of being frustrated about it."
Manager Joe Maddon said it was an adjustment Bryant had to make, that the uppercut had to be cut down. Long term, he said pitchers would have exposed it.
"You don’t often see a young player take that — I don’t want to say risk or chance because it was the right thing to do — but be able to wrap his mind around it and be OK with it and succeed," Maddon said. "His at-bats right now are spectacular."
Bryant’s flexibility and desire to adapt despite having so much success early on not only impressed Maddon, it sent a message to the clubhouse. If Bryant wasn’t satisfied, no one else should be.
"When you see the superstars make adjustments for the betterment of the group, you don’t have an excuse if you’re not that guy, right?" veteran David Ross said. "Javy Baez doesn’t have an excuse not to have a two-strike approach. Or Tommy La Stella. Or Matt Szczur. Or whoever comes up and is gonna be a part of this group."