Kris Bryant made his highly anticipated Major League debut last Friday against the Padres. Bryant lit the world on fire in Spring Training with a triple slash line of .435/.500/1.304 and a league leading 6 round-trippers. The Bryant hysteria was only intensified by his short stint in the minors.
Bryant’s most recent achievements are particularly exciting because he’s looked so promising in the advanced levels of minor league baseball. In his 2014 season in the Pacific Coast League, Bryant finished with a triple slash line of .295/.418/.619 while going deep in 8.6% of his at bats. Bryant’s remarkable offensive output earned him the honor of Baseball America’s number one prospect.
The numbers are unequivocally great. However, it’s hard to comprehend fully his 2014 AAA performance because the value of minor league statistics is relative. Identifying players who had similar seasons in the Pacific Coast league should add the necessary context to appreciate Bryant’s outstanding 2014 campaign. To discover these players, I built two separate K Nearest Neighbors models. The first model uses variables that are statically significant at the AAA level according to Chris Mitchell, FanGraphs writer and creator of the KATOH projection system. These explanatory variables include: age, walk rate, strikeout rate, ISO, BABIP and stolen base percentage. The model considered each position player who played in the Pacific Coast League from 1960-2014.
Below is a visualization of the 30 closest player/seasons to Kris Bryant’s 2014 AAA campaign, based off the aforementioned variables. The larger, darker bubbles indicate proximity to Kris Bryant’s 2014 season. The Euclidean distance is given below the Player/Season for reference.
This model does not serve as a Kris Bryant projection. We cannot say with certainty that Bryant will perform like any of the players on this list because the variables used to determine nearest neighbors do not fully describe the players.
However, there is value in identifying players who had similar levels of production in the statistics that are significantly related to MLB performance. I added the chart below, which provides a more granular level of detail.
The population of neighbors returned by model one is not littered with Hall of Famers. Players like Mike Schmidt and Nelson Cruz highlight Bryant’s impact-bat potential. Jack Cust, Carlos Pena, and others serve as cautionary examples of players whose propensity to strike out has persisted in the big leagues. Also, Horace Speed is on this list.
Horace Speed may be the most apt name for a pinch runner in the history of baseball. However, his inclusion in the first model’s output accentuates an issue: some of these variables are irrelevant. Bryant recorded a stolen base rate of 77.8% in 2014; however, this figure ignores his low volume of stolen bases. Because speed is a negligible part of Bryant’s game, it doesn’t make sense to use stolen base percentage as a defining variable.
The second model aims to compensate for the shortcomings of model 1.
Bryant’s 2014 season with the Iowa Cubs was defined by a sterling OPS and a high rate of both home runs and strikeouts. Model two uses home run rate, strikeout rate, walk rate, and OPS as its explanatory variables to find players most similar to Kris Bryant. The players returned by model 2 are in the graphic below.
There are a few common threads that link most of the players on this list. A majority of these players have outstanding power and have at least demonstrated the potential to be a major power threat. We also, again, see a great deal of players who fan at an alarming clip. Also alarming: Jack Cust is on this list twice.
These collections of neighbors should be taken with a grain of salt. Like many models that rely on minor league statistics, these models do not account for any untapped potential. Additionally, there is likely a slew of similar players who could not be included because they either did not play in the PCL or had an abbreviated stay in the PCL. Bryant does, however, have a troubling strikeout rate, and these models highlight that point of concern. While strikeouts will be something to bear in mind going forward, Kris Bryant still seems like he’s really good at baseball and will remain good at baseball for many years to come.
Merry Krismas to you and yours.
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Cody Callahan is a Contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on the Twitter at @codycallahan.