Back in April, if you would have told me that the Chicago Cubs would own 93 wins I would have called you crazy. Before the season began there were plenty of folks—myself included—that believed they would make the playoffs, but over 90 wins? That would be ludicrous! Not to mention those wins were just good enough to take the second wild-card spot by 10 games.
Obviously it wasn’t that far-fetched, as the young Cubbies—Act[ing] a Fool (1) up in the National League—told other teams to Get Back (2) on their way to their first playoff-berth since 2008. For those of you keeping track at home, that is two Ludacris puns. I know, I know, How Low (3) can I go. No, no don’t Runaway, Love (4). I’m about to Roll Out (5) some Beast Mode (6) Kris Bryant stats.
Speaking of the Chicago Cubs and Kris Bryant, the Chicago Cubs rookie 3B/OF Kris Bryant has been a huge part of their offensive success. Much like the Cubs themselves, there existed significant questions this offseason about whether Bryant was ready for the main stage. How would he react? Would the teams’ (successful) attempt to hold him down and give him Super-Two status work? The most important question, though, was whether or not Bryant could live up to the hype.
It is only a couple of days away from the end of his rookie campaign, meaning we finally have answers! The verdict is in, let’s see how Bryant did!
Where he excelled
The hype that surrounded Bryant was focused a good bit on the youngsters’ ability to not only hit a baseball, but hit it far. In 594 plate appearances last season between AA and AAA, Bryant slugged 43 homeruns and en route to posting a .335 ISO. The power existed in the minors, but a .472 wOBA and a 192 wRC+ would further imply he was simply a good overall hitter (this we already knew). So how would it translate to Major League Baseball?
Well, in his 636 plate appearances this season Bryant has been impressive:
|MLB Rookie Rank||5th||1st||2nd||3rd|
It should be clear that Bryant was able to hang with the best of the best as far as National League hitters go, which is something that isn’t always easy for hitters to do in their first taste of the big leagues. In fact, only seven hitters have been better (in terms of wRC+) than Bryant—Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Anthony Rizzo, Buster Posey, and Matt Carpenter. Obviously, there is no shame in trailing the hitters on that list.
In terms of all-time (or at least wRC+ among the 236 rookies w/ 300 PA since 2000), Bryant is seventh—nestled between Austin Kearns and James Loney.
Base Running and Speed
In all honesty, I think this is a part of Bryant’s game that people most often forget or gloss over. He is not the fastest player in the league, but he is definitely above average. When it comes to being a good base runner, speed helps but it is not the only factor.
|MLB Rookie Ranks||5th||1st||6th||2nd|
As you can see, Bryant is better at running the bases as opposed to stealing them. Overall a 6.5 BsR has him tied with Jason Heyward for best non-Billy Hamilton base runner in the National League this season, but most of that total is derived from his ability to not become a double play (wGDP) and take the extra base (UBR).
Good base running is extremely valuable to a team, especially when it is generated from a young player. Would you rather have a young player who can steal or a young player who knows how and when to take the extra base? Personally, I would take the latter. Lest we forget that Bryant is 13 for 17 in stolen base attempts, and stealing a base 76.5 percent of the time you attempt to is always a good thing.
So how does all this translate on the field? Well, it is plays like this:
Areas of Interest
So while Bryant succeeded in his first season in two large facets of his game, there are some areas that definitely stirred up some interest. The first is an area that will likely improve the longer he plays big league ball, the second has been one of the big questions about Bryant all along.
One thing that is often synonymous with younger players is the desire to swing freely more often than not ----- we know plate discipline generally improves with age. Whether this is true for all young guys is left to be researched, but in this case Bryant falls under that category. This season he has struck out 30.7 (!!!) percent of the time, which falls behind only Randal Grichuk (31.1 percent) and Michael Taylor (31.2 percent) for the highest strikeout percentage in the NL—but that isn’t all. Making contact only 66.3 percent of the time, Bryant also owns the second lowest contact percentage in the NL. That isn’t a great thing for a player to do when they swing at 73.4 percent of the pitches they see inside the strike zone, which is well above league average.
So even though his contact is low, he still swings at good pitches—as a below league average O-Swing percentage and an 11.5 walk percentage would imply. That is probably a good indicator that Bryant does see the strike zone well.
For now we don’t see any repercussions of such a low contact rate likely because of the .381 BABIP he is sporting. That means that the baseballs that do go into play when he makes contact often fall for hits. For most hitters a .381 BABIP is simply unfathomable, but Bryant has been able to maintain a high BABIP at every minor league level he played at. It could be that, since Bryant doesn’t sacrifice anything on his swing just to get a hit, when he does put a ball in play it is the best contact he can offer. Those type of balls in play, in turn, go for more hits. In a sense, Bryant isn’t going to put a ball in play that isn’t meant to do some serious damage or just to avoid a strikeout.
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That means that Bryant won’t put a Nori Aoki-esk swing on a ball just so that he can put a ball in play. By not sacrificing on his swing, he is displaying a will to put better contact on the ball no matter the cost. This better quality of contact can be seen in the 37.6 Hard%, which is tied for 13th in the National League. But what if Bryant were to strikeout less and increase his contact?
The more Bryant plays the better he will get at putting great contact on a greater amount of pitches, so it is possible that in the future we will see an increase—albeit not dramatic—in contact. In turn, that would lower his extreme strikeout percentage. If he were to make more contact just for the sake of making more contact it would, obviously, bring down his strikeout percentage—but at what cost? He would hit more singles, but he could also diminish his overall contact quality. Meaning he could get a couple more hits out of it, but in general he would do less damage than he is now.
When Bryant first was rumored to be called up, there was some legitimate questions about his defense. Theo Epstein even cited it as one of the main reasons for his extra time spent in Iowa to start this year. From the Ken Rosenthal piece in March:
"As I told Kris last September and again at the start of spring training, we view him as nearly big league ready," Epstein said. "The remaining area for improvement is his defense — something Kris agrees with.
In April our Matt Jackson questioned whether Bryant was too tall for third. Then in June Joe Maddon talked with ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, and Bryant’s defense—along with Addison Russell’s. Clearly defense has been a hot topic for the man who has manned the hot corner for a large part of this season.
The oddity here is that, defensively, Kris Bryant was around average at third base this season. With a 3.5 UZR/150, Bryant ranks as the sixth best defensive third baseman in the National League this year out of the 16 guys with at least 500 innings at the position. Not to mention his 6.8 RngR (UZR range component) is behind only fellow NL Central third baseman Todd Frazier (8.9) and fellow rookie Matt Duffy (6.9). When using DRS, however, Bryant makes out to be even more of an average third baseman. With a DRS of one and a rPM of 2, both his overall defense and range rate out lower down when compared to the rest of the league than pegged him.
Bryant, who was the rated the Best Defensive 3B in the Pacific Coast League last season, could still stand to improve this aspect of his game. While it wasn’t as faulty as you might think, a -2.8 ErrR scored him the lowest such total in the National League—meaning he commits more errors when compared to a league average player. Although the reasoning for that might be because his excellent range allows him to get to baseballs a league average third baseman normally wouldn’t. Defense is an area for Bryant that is not quite as refined, but just imagine how much better he would be overall if it were to become an integral part of his game.
So, with three games left in his rookie regular season campaign, has Kris Bryant lived up to his lofty expectations? Undoubtedly, yes. If it isn’t the fact that he has been crucial to a Chicago Cubs team that is finally back in the playoffs, than it is where he stands among the rest of the National League. In terms of fWAR, Bryant’s 6.2 total leads all rookies in Major League Baseball (with second place Matt Duffy trailing by 1.3 wins). When compared to the National League, the rising superstar ranks fifth behind Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, and A.J. Pollock.
It isn’t a stretch to say this won’t be Bryant’s first taste of the playoffs. The team that Theo and Jed Hoyer have built is more than capable of an extended stay at the top of the NL Central standings. It also isn’t a stretch to say Bryant has lived up to his expectations in his first season—and then some. The future looks bright for the Chicago Cubs P-Poppin (7) third baseman.
--All offensive ranks contained 127 National League players with at least 300 PA following Wednesday's games.
--All rookie ranks contained 31 MLB players with at least 300 PA following Wednesday's games.
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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody. Please inquire within to obtain a copy of Shawn's hip-hop mix-tape.