How a mid-at-bat change to an ax-handle bat helped ignite Kris Bryant

CHICAGO — Kris Bryant is pretty sure it’s not the bat, but right now, he isn’t leaving anything to chance.

After breaking his old bat during a late April plate appearance in Phoenix, Bryant grabbed his backup, an Axe Bat, and homered on his first swing with it. He had never used the unique-looking lumber, but since then, that’s all he has been swinging.

“I’ve been having good at-bats, so I don’t know if it’s the bat or what, but it’s always nice to use a new one and hit a homer,” the Chicago Cubs third baseman said earlier this week.

Axe Bats feature a handle that backers say is more conducive for a hitting grip. They’re becoming increasingly popular across the game, as American League MVP Mookie Betts uses one, and now a former NL MVP is as well. The manufacturer had been trying to get Bryant to use an Axe Bat, but until that game at Chase Field, he had tried it only in batting practice. Now Bryant won’t put it down, and his hitting coach is a fan as well.

“I love the Axe Bat,” Anthony Iapoce said. “It aligns your knuckles. Forces your knuckles to be aligned and creates the right angle of the barrel above the head.”

Bryant added: “There’s a lot of science behind it. How the bat naturally comes through the zone, how it falls into the zone. You don’t have to work for it. I like the idea behind it.”

Axe or no Axe, Bryant is in the midst of one of his better streaks at the plate, as he has reached base in a career-high 18 straight games. His OPS in that stretch is 1.077. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, since going to the Axe Bat on April 26, Bryant’s hard hit rate is 63 percent, eighth in baseball. He also homered in three straight games for the first time in his career, highlighted by a walk-off, three-run shot to win Tuesday’s game over the Miami Marlins. Bryant has been on fire.

All this good stuff has come after he struggled for the first couple of weeks of the season. But while social media was wondering if the old Bryant would return, the hitter and his team simply went to work.

Manager Joe Maddon watched old video of Bryant and Bryant’s personal hitting coach/dad, Mike Bryant, chimed in both from his home in Las Vegas and while visiting Chicago this week. Iapoce saw the progress firsthand.

“It takes time, and it also takes a true trust and belief,” the hitting coach said. “You don’t want to be hunting for hits. You want to be hunting the process. That can be hard.”

Neither Bryant nor the people around him are quick to offer excuses for a slow-ish start — he was hitting .224 with a .689 OPS on April 11 — but few from the outside viewed the situation the way they did: While Bryant played much of last year with his left shoulder hurting, he lost his way. He was favoring it, swinging differently, and then he landed on the injured list. Twice. His season, from May until October, was laborious. His timing was gone.

“When you’re playing sporadic, getting days off, on the DL, changing your swing, you don’t really get into that good rhythm that you want,” Bryant said.

The bottom line — which Bryant would never state so definitively — is he missed almost a year at the plate. He injured his shoulder in May and just recently is feeling like himself in the batter’s box. The offseason takes everyone out of his rhythm, but for Bryant, it was three more months on top of about five.

“It sucked to be hurt, but I don’t think that was the biggest thing,” Bryant said. “I lost timing. I lost that experience on the field.”

Maddon’s more hands-on approach this year helped as well. He went back and watched video of the righty, circa 2016, and saw a guy with less movement at the plate. He relayed his thoughts to the hitter, who implemented them.

“I don’t see myself as a rhythm [moving in the box] hitter,” Bryant said. “I’m very still in all of my movements. Very small movements. Staying quiet and looking at my previous successes helped a lot.”

Notice that he didn’t mention the Axe Bat, perhaps because his resurgence predates the long ball he hit with it. Prior to April 15, Bryant’s hard hit rate was 32 percent, good for 160th in baseball. Since then — including his time using the Axe Bat — he’s up to 58th. He has been feeling good for a while, and now the results are showing.

“I broke my bat in Arizona, and that was my backup in the dugout,” Bryant said. “First swing was a homer. But I’ve been feeling great for a while.”

Time in the box — more than good health or a new bat — have made the difference for Bryant. But as long as his timing stays, so will the bat.

“Why not?” he asked rhetorically. “I feel great.”

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