Out of all the reasons I enjoy baseball, I think mainly it’s about watching people do things few other people can do. Granted, that applies to the whole sport itself — every single player in the major leagues is absolutely fantastic. But I get particularly charged up by the freaks, and by the freak events. I love Felix Hernandez‘s changeup because there just isn’t another one like it. I love Aroldis Chapman‘s fastball because there just isn’t another one like it. Mike Trout clobbers baseballs other guys don’t clobber. Andrelton Simmons gathers baseballs other guys don’t gather. Everybody we watch is several standard deviations above the mean. And then to see things several standard deviations above that? I watch to be amazed, and players remain amazing.
Kris Bryant was just called up, as you know. He’s without question an elite-level prospect and he might be, with some question, an elite-level player. One thing we know is he possesses an elite-level skill, in his ability to hit for consistent power. Not every player in the league is capable of doing truly extraordinary things. Bryant, though, shot up prospect lists because he is capable. And Tuesday night, we got our first major-league glimpse. In the first inning of a game against the Pirates, Kris Bryant did something amazing. Let’s watch and discuss.
You know I’m going to have .gifs to embed, but if you’d prefer to watch video, here’s a link to the highlight on Cubs.com. What happened: Bryant hit a double, against Francisco Liriano. That, on its own, isn’t amazing, although in some sense it really is. But anyway, here’s a full-speed visual:
And now here’s a slowed-down swing, from a slightly off-center angle:
You see pretty good balance, and a compact yet powerful swing. Bryant keeps his hands at or above his waist, and he really dips his right shoulder in order to get a more vertical swing plane against the pitch in question. The ball flies away to the opposite field. We’re going to get to that.
Freeze-frame! Liriano’s pitch target:
The goal was clearly to bust Bryant inside with a fastball. And though the location was slightly missed, Liriano did bust Bryant inside with a fastball. This is one of the Pirates’ team pitching philosophies, and Bryant was already behind in the count 0-and-1. The Pirates know he has swing-and-miss tendencies, and they know you can get in under his hands. That’s a statement that applies to everybody, but, anyway.
Basically, the moment of contact. You can see the angle at which Bryant has arranged his shoulders. The pitch is located a little above Bryant’s knees, but more importantly, it’s also inside, and inside off the plate. Part of the baseball might’ve scraped the inner black, but that’s a certifiably inside pitch. That’s just about what Liriano wanted to throw. He wasn’t expecting this:
The ball did hit off the fence on the fly. It was the lower part of the fence, so it wasn’t mere inches away from being a dinger, but that’s a powerful shot to right-center, right next to a measurement that very helpfully reads “375”. I’m going to pull an image from the ESPN Home Run Tracker and estimate where this baseball wound up:
Still pulling, from other places. This time, I’m going to pull from MLBFarm.com. Shown below, Bryant’s minor-league spray chart from the full 2014 season:
Perhaps Bryant’s most remarkable skill is his ability to hit for power to the opposite field. Anyone who scouted him would’ve been able to see that strength, and though Bryant also proved he was able to turn on pitches when he needed to, he showed true all-fields power, which is uncommon in a prospect. It’s uncommon in a major-league vet. A hitter who can hit for power to all fields in the minors seems to stand a good chance of being able to hit for power in the majors.
But it’s one thing to hit with power the other way. It’s another thing to hit that pitch with power the other way. That’s where this gets really astonishing. I’m going to use Bill Petti’s Interactive Spray Chart Tool. What you see below: pitches in similar locations thrown to righties between 2010 and just the other day. All pitch types are included; I didn’t see a reason to specify fastballs.
Okay. So. Where did those pitches get hit?
Plenty of pull-side power, as you’d expect. Also plenty of pull-side non-power, as you’d expect. And there’s practically nothing hit with authority the other way. Oh, there are balls hit to the opposite field, but not many of them, and not many hit far and hard. You start to see a little more as you approach center field, but as you focus on right-center, it’s really about one dot. It’s one dot, then you have some fly outs.
That dot: a Matt Kemp homer from 2012.
The pitch Kemp hit out:
Pretty good. But, oh, we’re not done. Kemp’s fly ball hung up and was just about catchable. According to the Home Run Tracker, under standard environmental conditions, the dinger would’ve left a total of zero ballparks. According to the same source, the ball left Kemp’s bat at about 96 miles per hour. Now, there are differences between the Home Run Tracker and StatCast. StatCast is capable of measuring exit speed. The Tracker has to approximate it. But, we use what we have. One source puts Kemp’s dinger at 96mph off the bat. Bryant’s double? According to StatCast, the ball left his bat 10 full ticks faster.
That’s 106 miles per hour. This quickly, we have a new way to appreciate something we already would’ve been able to appreciate to some extent. Based on what information we’ve gathered to date, Bryant’s batted ball ranked in the top seven percent in exit velocity. The overall average for right-handed hitters has been about 88mph. And the average for righties against pitches that inside has been about 82mph. As you’d expect, those inside pitches have given righties trouble, relatively speaking. Not only did Bryant clobber the pitch; he somewhat inconceivably clobbered the pitch to the fence in right-center field, in one of the more pitcher-friendly environments in the game.
I don’t know what else you need. When we all saw the Bryant double live, or in a highlight, we knew it was incredible. We also have the information to say how incredible. Hitters just don’t do what Kris Bryant did, and while maybe some other hitter might’ve turned on the same pitch and knocked it out to left, that doesn’t mean Bryant’s result wasn’t extraordinary. It was a great result, and it was a freakish result, the achievement of a baseball-hitting freak who can do things other people don’t. They don’t make many hitters like Kris Bryant. Because of this double alone, you could accurately figure that Bryant has a special skillset.
Doesn’t mean he’s a lock. Javier Baez did some freaky things, too. Wily Mo Pena did some freaky things. I’ve seen Carlos Peguero do some freaky things. The impossibly strong are capable of the borderline impossible, even if they don’t have much of a plan. The scary thing is that Kris Bryant goes up there with a plan. And it’s usually a good one.
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