Full disclosure. My original intention in this space was to focus on the Chicago Cubs and their historically terrible offensive start to the 2021 season. And by offensive I, of course, mean the quality of their bats, not the actual offensive nature such a start has brought to our collective eyeballs.
Regardless, Chicago hung 13 runs on Saturday and it seemed odd timing, despite the still-glaring shortcomings present throughout their lineup. Instead, I want to talk to you today about Kris Bryant.
Kris Bryant has had an extraordinarily interesting career to-date. He’s been thrice an All-Star, was named Rookie of the Year, and has been awarded the NL MVP. Bryant had his service time manipulated and lost a public grievance over said service time manipulation.
He’s been a heavy subject of trade rumors, to the point where he was receiving text messages welcoming him to the New York Mets. This, all while making some notable adjustments at the plate and playing through far more injury than any player should be expected.
Somehow, despite all of this, there exists this negative perception of Bryant.
There are sects of the Cubs fanbase who have deemed him “unclutch” and have insisted he’s been trying to get his way out of town despite his repeated statements to the contrary.
Others insist he peaked early, never acknowledging the toll that even minor injuries have taken on his play in recent years. And then there’s just the general lack of attention on a national scale, as younger third basemen have risen to the forefront of the discussion and more attention gets doled out to Javier Báez, Willson Contreras, or a mic’d up Anthony Rizzo.
Without going down a rabbit hole of overgeneralizations or a hyper-focus on narrative, I think it’s high time we get back to acknowledging what Kris Bryant can do on a baseball field when he’s healthy. Because he’s showing us right now.
It’s been a while since we saw a completely healthy Kris Bryant. NBC Sports Chicago lists him having played 281 games out of the Cubs’ last 384 games. Of those 281, he was reportedly played through injury in about 141 of them. The 2020 season was particular unkind to Bryant, as he slogged through 147 plate appearances, posting career lows in virtually every category, including his first time below average by way of wRC+ (77).
Even going by wRC+ specifically, Bryant was above average in 2018 and 2019, both of which were years in which he dealt with lingering injury issues (including playing in only 102 games in the former). He went for a wRC+ of 126 in ‘18, followed by 135 in ‘19. His power tailed off a great deal in 2018 (.188 ISO) before regaining most of it in 2019 (.239). Whatever progress he made toward being what we’ve come to know as “Kris Bryant” was completely derailed in 2020.
Aside from that wRC+, Bryant posted a 27.2 percent strikeout rate, the highest since his first big league action back in 2015. His walk rate, at 8.2 percent, was the lowest at any point in his career. He hit the ball on the ground at a 37.4 percent clip, the second highest rate of his career, while making hard contact at a rate barely above 30 percent, the latter of which put him in just the 18th percentile. Those percentile rankings paint an even uglier picture for Bryant coming out of 2020 as he sat in the seventh in xBA, the 14th in xOBP, and the 30th in xISO. Compound that with increasing noise on the trade front, and it becomes at least mildly understandable that the general public gained collective amnesia when it comes to the type of player that Bryant used to be.
That player is one who led all third basemen in WAR between 2015 and 2019 (27.9), while churning out the following:
- OPS: .901 (4th)
- wOBA: .383 (4th)
- ISO: .232 (6th)
- wRC+: 139 (3rd)
He also cut down on his swing rates and whiffs, while also increasing his Oppo%. Obviously the numbers have fluctuated a bit, but ultimately this is a guy who recognized where he needed to improve, honed in on those areas, and made the adjustment, all while very much maintaining a status as a legitimately elite third baseman. A couple of seasons in which he had to fight off various nagging injuries followed by a 2020 that completely erased the memory of what Kris Bryant was haven’t helped, but here he is in 2021 ready to remind us.
In a lineup that could be described as spiritless, at best, Bryant has returned to the steady performer we knew him as in his earlier, healthier years. His early wRC+ is at 166, which would represent the highest mark in his career. His ISO is at .388. Baseball Savant has him at the highest HardHit% since his rookie year (43.2), while elevating enough to the tune of a 26.3 percent HR/FB ratio. His approach has reverted back to his older form, as his Swing% (45.7) is his lowest since 2017, and his CSW% (26.2) is right back in line with his career average after it ballooned in 2020.
Bryant is also in the 85th percentile in Barrel% (16.2) and the 81st in chase rate. He’s attacking fastballs especially, with a .555 wOBA and a .931 SLG, something worth noting because of how much failure we’ve seen from the rest of this lineup against the hard stuff. It’s due for some regression (obviously—it’s April), but his approach and contact trends reverting to what they were is an important development for Bryant. When you have the approach in conjunction with the health, you’re much more likely to see the “old” Kris Bryant than whatever Kris Bryant showed up at Wrigley in 2020.
Unfortunately that likely means more Kris Bryant trade rumors on the way. With the Cubs trending in a disastrous direction, their ownership will likely leap at the chance to move him and get that future salary off the books. But whether it’s the Cubs or a different Major League squad for which Bryant suits up, it certainly is a pleasant development to see Bryant getting back to his old form. He’s always going to have the warts in his game—strikeouts chiefly among them. But as long as he’s working deep counts, mashing fastballs, and running the bases as well as we’ve come to expect, he has the ability to put up numbers with the best of ‘em at the hot corner.
Regardless of how things transpire on the trade front, there’s still something really, really comforting about that.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.