Kris Bryant is coming to a ballpark near you, unless you live in Iowa. Then he’s going to a ballpark far from you. Sorry about that. You’ll have to get your daily dose of dingers on television, or watch some of the other Cubs über-prospects. Either way, after significant posturing and hoopla all across the media, Kris Bryant is set to descend upon the Show to wreak havoc with his prodigious power and cannon arm.
Many prognosticators are ready to start engraving the National League Rookie of the Year award with his name right now, before he’s even seen a single big league pitch. The former second-overall pick certainly has the talent to claim the hardware at the season’s end, but is the race really over before it’s begun? Teammate Jorge Soler could present an imposing challenge for the title, as could Diamondbacks pitcher Archie Bradley and Mets hurlers Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Those guys are plenty talented, but they’re no Kris Bryant… right?
Hold your horses, sports fans. Bryant really is a veritable offensive toolshed. However, there are some very real concerns about his propensity to strike out. Bryant struck out 25.9% of the time in 297 plate appearances at Double-A in 2014, and then 28.6% of the time in the same number of trips to the plate at Triple-A. He still managed respective wOBA scores of .504 and .439 at those levels, but it’s quite easy to imagine that rate growing even higher in the majors. Steamer projects him to go down on strikes 29.2% of the time once he gets the call, while ZiPS forecasts an even more dire 32.9%. For some context, Ryan Howard struck out at a 29.3% rate last year, and Chris Carter posted a 31.8% mark.
That’s not the kind of company one aims to be in. It doesn’t quite approach the extinction event-level disaster that was fellow Cub Javier Baez’s 41.5% cameo, but it’s still a pretty gloomy forecast. It’s very, very hard to strike out that much and be an impact player. Yet that’s precisely what Bryant aims to do when he’s called up. What, exactly, does a 32.9% K rate look like?
The man in the hazy GIF is Russell Branyan, who rather conveniently struck out 32.9% of the time in his career. He hit .232/.329/.485 (.347 wOBA) over the course of his 3398 plate appearance career. Branyan’s main calling card was his absurd power, which he parlayed into 198 home runs. He only produced 12 WAR while appearing in 1059 big league games, and his 32.9% strikeout rate is the 18th highest all-time among qualified players. For those of you wondering, Carter sits in 16th place with a 33.6% mark. You'd be hard-pressed to get excited about an anonymous prospect if you were told that he'd hit tons of dingers but strike out at Russell Branyan levels.
To try to provide some more perspective on this strikeout rate projection, I pulled data on every rookie season since 1961 (the beginning of the expansion era) where the player recorded at least 250 plate appearances. I then sorted the data by K%, and you can find the results here. Because we're really interested in the results of the players that struck out a ton, here are the players that struck out at least 32% of the time, how many plate appearances they registered, and their fWAR totals for the season, recognizing that league average strikeout rate has changed over that time period.
That's not a sunny picture for Bryant to look at. The only positive impact was made by our friend George Springer, who shares Bryant's huge power profile and owned the biggest OBP of the group (.336) by a country mile. That's good news for Bryant, but if the Cubs' crown jewel wants to deliver on his sky-high promise he's going to have to fly in the face of history. Springer, for all his own hype, was never the prospect that Bryant is. Perhaps that's a good sign for Bryant. Perhaps it isn't.
Prospects have a tendency to do terrible things to your soul. Remember when Lastings Milledge and Jesus Montero were going to set the world on fire? When Tommy Hanson and Rick Ankiel seemed destined for greatness? Prospects are terrible, awful things to gamble on. For every Joe Mauer there’s a Domonic Brown and two of Ian Stewart. That’s to say nothing of the Kerry Wood-type horror stories. The prospect lists are dark and full of terrors. A humongous strikeout addition is just the kind of thing that can derail a prospect like Bryant. It’s tempting to say that every prospect pundit in the world can’t be wrong, but they’ve been wrong before. Baseball is a fickle business.
Branyan, to be fair, did not have the plate discipline that Bryant has. It’s part of why despite the titanic K% forecast, ZiPS still says that Bryant will hit .256/.339/.500, slug 29 home runs and be worth 4.3 WAR. It even slaps an Evan Longoria comp on him. And Bryant, after all, can do this.
Bryant is most likely going to be a pretty productive baseball player in some shape or form. But to espouse him as the second coming of Harmon Killebrew or something silly like that is obscenely premature. Let the kid play at the highest level first, and hit against big league pitching. After all, even though Killebrew was a mid-level batting average, mega-powerful third baseman… he only struck out 17.3% of the time.
Food for thought, dear reader.
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Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.