Pretty much everything in North Chicago is going well (baseball related, anyway). Coming off a trip to the NLCS, the Cubs retain their entire core, made up of almost all rookies and early 20-somethings. They maintain one of the best manager/front office combos in the league, and they even managed to add talent through free agency. The Cubs may have an absolutely ridiculous championship drought, but it’s hard to find things to nitpick about.
Leading the way in their group of promising youngsters is defending ROY Kris Bryant. He has easy 80 grade raw power (on a scale that maxes out at 80); something that he is able to tap into by swinging out of his shoes on about every pitch. He hit 26 bombs with a respectable .275 batting average, and even managed a good walk rate (11.6%). As someone who just turned 24, it seems that his best days are still to come.
Looking a little deeper though, there is more than enough reason to worry about not just improving, but to wonder if Bryant can be as productive next season as he was in his debut campaign. Remember that all-out swing technique? It resulted in a 30.6% strikeout rate – third among qualified hitters – sandwiched between Michael Taylor and Ian Desmond. And where sometimes we can attribute a K% to a little inflation because of luck, Bryant’s 16.5% whiff rate is equally bad, fourth in the league behind Ryan Howard (a scary name for a power hitter to be compared to). Even deeper, his inside the strike zone contact rate of 77.5% is very low compared to the league average value of 87.1%. This is, again, the fifth lowest mark in the league among league qualifiers. When you consider how many pitches in the zone he’s going to face over a 600+ plate appearance season, that’s a lot of whiffs on pitches that fans and owners are going to want him crushing.
This may look like just a bunch of numbers, but there’s legitimate worry here; if Bryant isn’t making consistent contact then there’s no way for his 80/80 raw power to play as such, and his game power goes lower and lower with the more he misses.
Something that has been thrown out as a point to believe in Bryant’s lasting ability is that despite the contact deficiencies, he still managed a good average. But as you look at more advanced underlying statistics, it’s easy to see how this is a poor measure of ability since it is so dependent on defensive play and luck in the field (this is not just anecdotal evidence, but also backed by research). His .378 batting average on balls in play is abnormally high, especially for someone with a standard batted ball profile like his (20% liners, 34% grounders, 45% fly balls). The cause behind that is almost definitely luck (although we do understand if he’s hitting the ball harder than others that this will have some impact), and comparing across other seasons it is simply not a repeatable feat. Don’t think that his batting average is any indicator of whether he will continue to hit at his pace; it’s a descriptive statistic, not a predictive one.
Since Bryant has a very defined hitting profile, we can apply what we know about him to similar players across different eras to see how we could expect him to mature, assuming similarity. Chris Mitchell of FanGraphs put together a collaboration of a few similarity scores, putting him next to a couple successful players (Mike Cameron and Troy Tulowitzki) and then following is a long list of duds (Austin Kearns, Mark Reynolds, Greg Briley, etc.). And of course there are more duds than stars in the league. But when run through the same system, Carlos Correa wound up with four hall of famers as comparables. There are plenty of liberties taken when trying to project a player’s entire career after just one season, but it’s generally an accurate measure and another concern for Bryant.
With all this being said, by no means is it an impossibly for Bryant to turn around the bad areas I’ve pointed out and end up winning many World Series and MVP awards with the Cubs. He’s still an extremely talented hitter who has shown enormous power when he is able to make contact. My concern is that he’s not going to be able to make the correct adjustments to be able to make enough contact to tap that delicious 450 foot plus power that fans just feast on. In the end, with other third basemen going around the same slot as him with just as much upside and so much less risk (Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado), as well as star-studded depth (Evan Longoria and Todd Frazier), there’s no reason to spend so early on Bryant when he has such a high chance to flame out.
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