Fair warning: my thoughts on Bryant last year turned out to be pretty terrible. I pegged him as a regression candidate; instead he won the MVP, but I’ve finally joined the hype train on the guy, although perhaps it’s now more of a bandwagon.
There’s no doubt Bryant is absolutely one of the best hitters in the entire game, cutting back on his strikeouts while managing to increase power numbers, and as tends to follow with both he increased his contact and average as well. The improvements have catapulted him from one of the best to one of the elites in the game.
It’s nearly impossible to argue anyone else deserves to be mentioned in front of him (and not just at third base) because of his monstrous numbers and ability. But let me try.
If we travel out a little farther West, there’s another young third baseman tearing up the league as well, only nine months older than Bryant. Enter Nolan Arenado, owner of back to back 40 home run seasons, a batting average that has crept closer and closer to .300, and a promising young lineup that offers plenty of runs and RBI opportunities just like Bryant and the Cubs.
While Kris Bryant has been given the accolades and the media attention, don’t let that distract you from the fact that Arenado has beaten Kris Bryant the last two years in homers, isolated slugging, batting average, strikeout rate and RBIs (more of a fantasy stat, not meant to be indicative of future performance). Yet we have Kris Bryant being drafted ahead of Arenado in basically every format, although the difference may be smaller in some. It might be the case that Arenado is, in fact, the best third baseman for fantasy owners.
Immediately I want to get the talk of Arenado’s home park out of the way. Yes, Coors Field inflates offense tremendously. Yes, Arenado plays 81 of his home games there, and yes, Arenado has performed much better at home than away (.312 average and 25 homers to .277 and 16 away). But he’s not just a product of his home field. First, Arenado is still a very good hitter on the road, with a 116 wRC+. And there exist general drop offs when hitters travel anyway, with a large portion carrying over 10 points in wRC+ difference. For the purposes of this article, and your future fantasy decisions, let’s not take Arenado’s splits or ballpark into account, positive or negative.
What is striking about the two hitters is that while both have light tower power, Bryant has had to work exceptionally hard to bring his strikeouts close to league average. Meanwhile, Arenado has kept his career rate at 14.8% – one of the best marks in the league. His great contact ability allows him to put more balls in play, which means more hits. Yet his BABIP has been surprisingly low for someone of his profile – a career .291 despite a league average around .300. And the NL West has some of the better parks for a high BABIP, which means we could expect him to increase his batting average upwards of .300 without losing any of his great power.
Bryant, on the other hand, has had some pretty intense luck in terms of BABIP. Both of their fly ball rates differed by under a percentage point, yet Bryant had a BABIP of .332, with a career average of .352. With no large difference in quality of batted balls (Bryant has a few percent more soft, but a few percent more hard hit, which comes to a wash over a season’s worth of appearances) there’s no tangible reason to explain the difference. With batting averages already similar, the scales point to Arenado going forward as regression bodes well for him, and not for Bryant.
While the calling card for Kris Bryant is
his eyes the ability to shoot balls over the fence, Arenado has the same ability, if not better. All of slugging percentage, isolated power, and raw home runs have been in favor of Arenado for the last two seasons, although if Bryant can continue his trajectory he will at least be close enough where it’s a non-factor, or perhaps overtake Arenado.
40-45 homers is about the ceiling for a player in today’s league, which doesn’t leave enough room for Bryant to clearly overtake Arenado enough to make up for the expected contact differences. Where he can make up ground is slugging, as Arenado has seemed to stall around .570 both in performance and in projections. While it’s tough to expect much more, some of the best hitters (consider that this is all time, not simply a group per season) can maintain close to .600. Bryant would need to progress in a pretty big jump to reach though, and it’s not the likely scenario.
Don’t get me wrong, Kris Bryant is on my shortlist on players to target. I just think that Arenado offers more value at his spot. Plus, he has shown to perform better over the course of a season. The risk, of course, revolves around the longer road trips Arenado goes on as his performance may drop then, but he more than makes up for any shortcomings during homestands.
Arenado has shown to be the better, or even more consistent, option in fantasy leagues. Don’t be hesitant to pick him before Bryant. His 2016 showed that he’s as legit as they come.
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