We are almost completely done with the Hi/Lo rankings series for hitters with only outfield to go after today’s third base piece. For the third base argument, we have likely one of the most actionable discussions yet. Way back in 2016, Kris Bryant looked like a perennial MVP candidate. He was coming off his first MVP just after a ROY 2015 campaign and the Cubs were WS Champions. He was one of the best players in the game and the sky was the limit. However, the next several seasons did not see a return to the WS for the Cubs and while Bryant still posted gaudy numbers there were slowly some signs of decline. If it is at all possible for a guy who posted wRC+ values of 147, 126, and 135 to be a disappointment Bryant was. However, 2020 was a different story. Bryant was downright dreadful and injuries were seen as a large part of why. He has dealt with a shoulder issue that seems to have limited him offensively.
Bryant has seen one of the more aggressive ADP drops among all hitters and with either be a steal at that cost if he remains any of his former self, or he will somehow cost too much still. Arguing the pro-Bryant side of things will be Matt Williams while Michael Govier will be taking the opposite end of the argument.
The High Ranking For Bryant (3B12)
There are players you believe in and players you don’t. Kris Bryant is neither for me. He is merely going at a point in the draft where his potential is worth the risk.
After being named MVP early in his career, Bryant suffered shoulder surgery and was not the same afterward. But even in a very down year in 2017 he was able to slash .272/.374/.460 with 13 HR over 389 ABs. Not great by any stretch, but when added to a replacement-level player to make up the missing ABs it’s not awful.
That was him recovering from the shoulder injury. But in 2019, a year further removed, Bryant slashed .282/.382/.521 with 31 HR, 108 R, and 77 RBI over 543 ABs. Looks good to me. Naysayers will point to his Statcast metrics still being below his “peak,” but a 2.7 point drop from 2017 in Hard Hit% was exactly a concern. In fact, Bryant’s Barrel% stayed the same while his Sweet Spot% improved.
So if we can agree 2019’s metrics were completely acceptable (we should), then let’s talk about 2020. Bryant was awful, across the board. But so was his entire team essentially. There is no telling how much the change in routine and other circumstances impacted each major leaguer and (buzz word coming) it was an incredibly small sample size.
The bottom line is that Bryant was and is healthy. There is every reason to believe 2019 is going to happen again. It’s unlikely he forgot how to hit a baseball overnight. Give me the discount and the risk as the 16th third baseman off the board behind Tommy Edman.
The Low Ranking For Bryant (3B19)
Kris Bryant invokes instant heartache among Cubs fans. The 2020 review of Bryant’s performance stinks to high heaven for a player of his caliber. .206/.293/.351 with a 77wRC+ and a K% of 27.2 pales in comparison to the 147 wRC+ 19.2 K% he rocked in 2017, which wasn’t even his MVP year! Bryant had a hand issue in 2020 which could be labeled as an excuse for his lack of production. Pop-ups were a continuing problem too as Bryant’s IFFB% has incrementally risen the last three years to 14.6%. Throw in a decline in HR/FB rate from 18% to 9.8% and you’re starting to see a burgeoning issue.
Perhaps what ails Bryant lies beyond physical concerns? Asked if he was still having fun on the Red Line Radio podcast, Bryant replied, “At times, no. It really got to me sometimes the things I was hearing.” Not every ballplayer gets to have fun all the time. Even the best of the best in MLB fail to get on base nearly 60% of the time. Yet, Bryant seems more attune than other players with the outside chatter about his trade value. This goes all the way back to his controversial delayed call up which added an extra year of control for the Cubs. Stoking the proverbial fire further, he was better away from Wrigley last year hitting more taters with a higher OPS and fewer Ks. I know these players are not automatons, but most professionals know they have to accept the business end of this game. With his current ADP of 127 (NFBC since February 1st), that’s too high a price to pay for a guy that is consistently unreliable. I’m not out on Bryant altogether, but I’d rather wait on a guy like Josh Donaldson who can provide similar returns at an ADP of 191.
The Data Monster’s Take
Unsurprisingly, the Data Monster was extremely down on Bryant’s 2020 season. He regressed in two of the most important categories for hitters. One of the most significant changes was in his Whiff results. Early in Bryant’s career, he had major issues with whiffs. He posted bottom 20th percentile results for whiff influence in both 2015 and 2016. However, as the seasons went on he began to improve in this department and he crept back towards league average. 2020 marked a bit of a slip as he posted a 28th percentile figure. There does not appear to be a major change in pitch mix impact this as his xWhiff was in the 85th percentile. This could be a function of Bryant changing his swing due to his injuries but will need to be monitored in 2021.
One thing Bryant has always had is great plate discipline. 202 was no different, in fact, while his SAE does bear it out it appears that Bryant had the lowest out-of-zone swing rate of his career based on my measurements. He seems to have offset that lowered aggression out of the zone with some in zone swing reduction as well. However, Bryant was absolutely awful on contact in 2020. After being no worse than an 80th percentile hitter based on In_wOBA in the first five seasons of his career he was a 30th percentile hitter in 2020. In terms of his batted ball profile, nothing major seems to have changed with Bryant outside of his hit type distributions. After posting barrel rates around 10% with a 5-6 solid% according to baseball savant, Bryant saw those numbers flip. These batted ball types are not too far off from one another and it gives me a reason to believe that a small improvement in his contact quality will go a long way. We have not seen the last of Kris Bryant.