Kris Bryant bucking strikeout trend, but is he happy about it?

CHICAGO — His quest for perfection in the batter’s box will never reach its conclusion, but Cubs star Kris Bryant won’t stop trying. The latest edition of his journey, which might well end up with Bryant in the Baseball Hall of Fame, features him making more contact than ever and striking out less. That’s a novel concept in today’s brand of major league baseball.

“It’s seeing these pitchers more and me just not wanting to strike out,” Bryant said recently. “I’m making a better effort and swinging at better pitches and not getting myself out.”

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Bryant had a rare day off Sunday, which was followed by a day off for the entire team Monday, so by the time he takes the field at home against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night, he should have that proverbial bounce to his step. That doesn’t bode well for the opposition, as Bryant already leads all qualified National League hitters with a 1.010 OPS. A deeper dive reveals all sorts of goodies about Bryant’s offensive production. Here are some:

• His 29 percent line-drive rate is the highest of his career.

• His 15.7 strikeout percentage is at a career low, down from a high of 30.6 in 2015, his rookie season. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Bryant is one of only two qualifying NL players who have reduced their strikeout percentage every full year since Bryant’s rookie season. Joey Votto is the other, and Votto’s rate is up so far this season.

• Bryant’s percentage of fly balls that are infield popups — or near automatic outs — is at a career low of just 6 percent. For comparison, perennial MVP candidate and teammate Anthony Rizzo has a 16 percent infield popup percentage.

• And a fun one: According to Baseball-Reference.com, an offensive team of nine Kris Bryants, combined with “average” pitching and defense, would feature a winning percentage of over .800.

The numbers go on and on, as they do for many elite hitters in baseball, but Bryant’s reduced strikeout rate sticks out the most.

“The first year, I was chasing a lot more because you’re not used to seeing major league pitching,” Bryant said. “Now you have a history; you know how the pitches move and you know what to swing at and what not to. It’s always a work in progress. I find myself chasing now, but sometimes you do have to give credit to the pitcher.”

And sometimes you have to give credit to a great hitter. But here’s the most interesting thing about Bryant’s strikeout total: He isn’t as thrilled with the reduction as you might think.

“Just because the strikeouts are down, it doesn’t always mean it’s necessarily a good thing, because when I struck out a lot, I felt like I was also still doing a lot of damage by hitting the ball in the air,” Bryant said. “Sometimes I go up there and just put the ball in play and ground out to short or something, and early in the count, you don’t want to do that. I like that the strikeouts are down, but there is still a part of me that wants to make sure that when I don’t strike out that I do something with the pitch I actually do hit.”

In addition to a 1.010 OPS, Kris Bryant’s line-drive rate is at a career high and his strikeout percentage is a career low. Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

It might take a moment to let that sink in. In his attempt to reduce his strikeout total, which was as high as 199 in his rookie season, Bryant acknowledged he’s not always swinging at some pitches he might be able to drive. In other words, contact is good, but how good is it if it’s weak contact? How much different is that from a strikeout?

“Maybe making too much contact early in the count against pitches that I don’t necessarily want to make contact with isn’t so good, like pitches down in the zone or sliders down,” Bryant said. “It would be nice to swing through those sometimes and wait for a better pitch to get.”

It takes a sophisticated hitter to admit it might be better to swing and miss than make contact. But that’s exactly what Bryant is. His recent Sunday Night Baseball discussion with Alex Rodriguez about hitting drew raves from around the league, as well as from his own team. It comes back to that quest for perfection. As Bryant adjusted his approach this season, he hit just two home runs in March and April, but May has seen a change.

“It might just be the pitches I’m swinging at,” he said. “Against the Cardinals [earlier this month], I was grounding out a lot. I had some nice hits, but I’d still rather get those balls in the air. I think I’m doing that more now.”

Bryant has gone deep six times this month, with a week left to add to that total. He’s walking that fine line, increasing his line drives and decreasing his strikeouts but still wanting to hit the ball in the air — and deep.

“I think that’s with anyone,” Bryant said. “When strikeouts are down, you’re probably grounding out more and making weak contact. It’s not necessarily the best thing in the world. It looks nice on paper, less strikeouts, but it doesn’t mean it’s a great thing. Sure, it’s nice to move the baseball like [Cubs manager] Joe [Maddon] has been talking about, but it just depends on what situation.”

Maddon’s biggest issue is with runners on third base and fewer than two outs. That’s a long-standing problem for the Cubs, who rank 26th in baseball in that department, as they’ve gotten the run home just 44 percent of the time. That’s about the same success rate as Bryant himself has had (43 percent), so there is at least one situation in which he’s far from perfect. That’s one of the few.

Still, the quest continues.

Maddon was asked what makes Bryant special, and he didn’t recite one statistic, instead praising him for his hustle and work ethic. It’s just another elite aspect of one of the best players in the game.

“The thing about him, beyond the numbers, he plays hard every day,” Maddon said on Sunday morning. “Every pitch he plays hard. That’s what I really appreciate about him. That’s part of the reason he’s not playing today. He does get after it the proverbial 110 percent.”

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