In addition to being the face of the Cubs, Kris Bryant has also served as the face of service time manipulation. In 2015, the Cubs held Bryant down “to work on his defense,” barring him from accruing a full-year of service time in his rookie season and thereby ensuring he would be under team control through 2021.
As Bryant looks ahead to an unjust fourth and final year of arbitration eligibility, he’s leaving behind a 2020 campaign that he must be relieved didn’t come in a contract year. After suffering an oblique injury, Bryant’s 2020 is likely over, and his production was a far cry from what the former Rookie of the Year and MVP is capable of. In 138 plate appearances, Bryant hit .195/.283/.301. That’s a .264 wOBA and a 62 wRC+.
Of course, any stat line this year comes with the small sample size caveat. Bryant has battled back, elbow, finger, wrist injuries this season prior to injuring his oblique, and he’s run this cold in otherwise great seasons before. Hitting below the Mendoza line for a couple months doesn’t mean he’s finished.
There’s also no guarantee that Bryant is going to rebound in quite the same way. 2020 has been a major aberration, but it’s also consistent with the way Bryant has been trending. Aside from a slight bounce last season, Kris Bryant’s hard-hit rate has fallen every year since 2015.
Bryant’s percentile rankings look more like a glove-first shortstop than a perennial All-Star slugger’s. Since 2017, Bryant hasn’t ranked above the 57th percentile in hard hit percentage, the 31st percentile in average exit velocity, and the 45th percentile in whiff rate.
Bryant, of course, has had excellent production in that time. Just last season he had a .379 wOBA and 135 wRC+ after beginning the season slowly. The year before that, his worst as a major leaguer, Bryant slashed .272/.374/.460 for a 125 wRC+ and that’s better than a lot of player’s bests. Bryant doesn’t consistently make hard contact and that leads to him being streaky, but there’s more to being a good hitter than average exit velocity.
Hit direction, discipline, and max exit velocity are all equally important, if not moreso. Bryant had an issue at the beginning of last season where he wasn’t pulling fly balls, but that’s mostly been corrected since. Bryant’s max exit velocity hasn’t cracked 110 mph this year, but he hasn’t been 100 percent physically the entire year. Bryant’s chase rates and overall swing rates in 2020 weren’t any different from his career averages.
It’s certainly encouraging that Bryant, who was hit in the head by a pitch in 2018, appears to recognizing balls and strikes as effectively and making contact. It’s one thing that Bryant is hitting for less power. It’d be another if Bryant were hitting for less power and taking a worse approach to the plate.
Bryant’s enormous struggles this year can almost all be attributed to injury. The rub is that injuries don’t have to go away. Back injuries and oblique injuries can be especially nagging, and let’s not forget that Bryant injured his shoulder in 2018 as well. The question of health and his declining hard hit rate are troubling, but neither mean that he’s washed up.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.