Kris Bryant and Floor Versus Ceiling

Merry Krismas, Chicago; Kris Bryant’s defense magically improved in the exact amount of minor league games it took for the Cubs to delay his free agency by a year. With that remarkable coincidence act of theatre out of the way, the Cubs can now acknowledge that Bryant is not only their best third baseman, but one of their best big league players. And so today begins the Kris Bryant Era in Chicago.

Chris Mitchell has already written up the KATOH system’s expectations for Bryant, and as you’d expect, a model based on Bryant’s minor league performances think he’s going to be quite good. After all, few players have torn up minor league hitting the way Bryant has; including his stint in the AFL, Bryant has hit .331/.430/.671, good for a 195 wRC+. Kris Bryant can hit, and when he hits, the baseball goes a long way.

That profile is why he’s the consensus top prospect in baseball, and why there’s so much hype surrounding his call-up. Bryant isn’t some toolsy athlete in low-A ball that could be great in three years, or a flame-throwing ace who could rack up the strikeouts until his arm explodes; he’s a college-polished slugger who already projects as one of the best third baseman in baseball, even before he plays a big league game. As prospects go, Bryant is a very low-risk talent, as it would take a minor disaster for him to not be at least reasonably productive for the Cubs in 2015 and beyond.

He’s not perfect, of course. His contact rate is a legitimate concern, and as Chris noted this morning, he’s probably looking at a peak that resembles something out of Giancarlo Stanton’s career. Stanton is something like Bryant’s upside, a guy who produces so much value on contact that the strikeouts don’t prevent him from being an elite player. The downside is probably something more along the lines of Chris Davis, who had a peak year at that level but has been up-and-down in the big leagues. Most likely, Bryant becomes something in between those two extremes, maybe more along the lines of Troy Glaus, who is the player I’ve most often heard Bryant compared to.

Troy Glaus was a very good player, especially before injuries robbed him of his defensive value, but Glaus also finished with a career 120 wRC+ and +34 WAR, not anyone’s idea of a Hall of Famer. And yet, something like Glaus’ career is a perfectly reasonable expectation for Bryant, and would actually even be on the positive side of his range of outcomes. However, with all the hype surrounding Bryant’s call-up and his best-prospect-in-baseball status, it’s certainly possible that a career like Glaus’ would be viewed as something of a disappointment. It shouldn’t be.

Bryant is the best prospect in baseball, but prospect status isn’t rated solely by potential peak performance, at least not on any list you should take seriously. Prospect status should be mostly about balancing risk and reward, and Bryant grades out exceptionally highly because of the very low risk of him being an absolute zero. We don’t know exactly what kind of big leaguer he will be, but the odds of Bryant being completely useless are extremely low. This risk/reward profile makes Bryant a better value proposition than a guy like Byron Buxton, who has a higher theoretical ceiling but a much lower chance of actually reaching it.

But that nuance often gets lost in the hype, and so much attention has been focused on Bryant’s performances — especially this spring — that it feels like there’s a perception that he’s going to become the best player in the National League in the not too distant future. While that kind of outcome isn’t impossible, it would take some pretty unlikely improvement, either a huge step forward in his contact rate or the development of Alex Gordon-style defense after he moves to the outfield. It could happen, but that should not be what we expect from Bryant; that kind of development is at the far right tail of his possibility distributions curve.

In reality, even Giancarlo Stanton has never really been the best player in his own league. There has always been a slugger with better contact skills (Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Matt Kemp), an up-the-middle guy having a huge offensive year (Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen), or a dominating ace (Clayton Kershaw) to somewhat outshine Stanton. When you’re a high-strikeout guy who doesn’t really add a ton of value in the field or on the bases, it’s just very difficult to actually be the very best player in the game, because there are usually guys who can put together great offensive seasons while also contributing on defense or on the bases.

Bryant probably isn’t going to be giving back his offensive value in the field — he’s not Ryan Howard or Adam Dunn — but unless he really takes to the outfield after what seems like an inevitable future move, he’s likely only going to be a significant contributor at the plate. And the strikeouts will make it hard for him to hit enough to be a super-elite player if his value is almost entirely tied to his bat.

But that’s okay. Giancarlo Stanton-lite is still a terrific player. Troy Glaus had a terrific peak at that level for a while, and if that’s the kind of player Bryant is going to become, then the Cubs should be really quite happy. Bryant doesn’t have to become a perennial MVP candidate in order to justify his best-prospect-in-baseball hype, because the enthusiasm is based more around the fact that we can be pretty sure he’s going to be a good big leaguer rather than the idea that he’s definitely going to be a great one.

Bryant may never become a great player. There are holes in his game, and those holes could limit him to simply being an above average regular for a decade or so. But we shouldn’t let that reality obscure the fact that Bryant really is the game’s best prospect right now, as long as we remember that he’s in that position more because of our confidence that he can be a good player than an expectation that he’s going to become a great one.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Matthew
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Matthew

“better value proposition than a guy like Byron Buxton, who has a higher theoretical ceiling but a much lower chance of actually reaching it.”

I’m not sure how true this is. Buxton is an 70-grade CF with 80-grade speed. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising if Buxton could do a 2014 Billy Hamilton impression if called up tomorrow. Buxton has a tremendous floor because he is a defense/speed first player.

A front office exec put Buxton’s floor as Tori Hunter, which I don’t really get, but still.

TKDC
Guest
TKDC

All I got from this is that there exists a front office exec who is an idiot.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

That is not a surprise. I’ve rooted for Jim Bowden teams.

Who is Zorbist?
Guest
Who is Zorbist?

Current Torii Hunter? Yeah, that’s believable. Career Torii Hunter: Well, that’s a hell of a floor. His “floor” is going to get HOF votes.

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter

I *am* sure how true this is. It’s completely true. He only played a partial year last year, and it was in A-ball. His OBP was barely north of .310. Of course there’s a lower chance of reaching his ceiling when you compare him to someone who demolished AAA pitching for a full season.

Matthew
Guest
Matthew

I didn’t say Buxton would kill the ball, but his defense and baserunning can carry him. Billy Hamilton had a .250/.292/.355 line, but was worth 3.7 WAR. It is plausible to imagine Buxton could manage a line around that. Say Bryant can be the good Mark Reynolds or the the good Pedro Alvarez. You are looking at one part of the picture. Buxton doesn’t have hit to be valuable. Bryant does and will.

vivalajeter
Guest
vivalajeter

Your point isn’t really related to what you quoted though. He’s talking about the chance a player hits their ceiling. Buxton might have a Hamilton-like line and might put up 3-4 WAR, but that doesn’t show that he has a chance to reach his ceiling.

Rational Fan
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Rational Fan

Kris Bryant is a TWO TOOL player at best. How is his floor higher? My goodness. The hype surrounding this guy is atrocious.

A 5 tool player – Buxton – is going to have a higher floor than a 2 tool player. If Bryant doesn’t make contact enough to hit for average (which is entirely possible) then his only + tool will be power. He’s slow footed, with a poor glove and an average arm. I’ve never seen a two tool player have so many people drooling over him.

cs3
Member
Member
cs3

Who pissed in your cheerios this morning?

Jason B
Guest
Jason B

Yeah that Frank Thomas, he was a zero on the basepaths and no good in the field. HOW GOOD OF A PLAYER COULD HE POSSIBLY BE?!

And that Edgar Martinez, also pretty slow and a freakin’ DH! Loser-town.

(And Paul Molitor! And…)

Rational Fan
Guest
Rational Fan

Frank Thomas struck out 13% of the time for his career.

Frank Thomas had an 80 in hit and 80 in power. Kris Bryant might have an 80 in power, but his hit tool is around a 50. Comparing the two is absurd. One was a pure hitter who had great plate disciplined and rarely struck out. The other is a big swinger who has struck out nearly 30% of his MiLB life.

skippyballer486
Member
skippyballer486

Rational Fan – Your argument is that a two-tool player ALWAYS has a lower floor than a five-tool player? That’s incredibly stupid. What if the two-tool player’s two tools are hitting and power, tools that he used to bat .400 with 50 homers while drawing a ton of walks in Triple A? And the five-tool player is in Low A, flashing a mild plus in the five tools to go along with bad plate discipline and also he punched his manager one time? You’d still say that the five-tool guy has a higher floor?

Just discussing Bryant versus Buxton, Bryant has already succeeded at a level higher than Buxton has ever played. Buxton has 37 plate appearances above A ball in his career, in which he’s recorded more strike outs than hits. He’s fast, but he’s not Billy Hamilton fast (no one but Billy Hamilton is). Buxton seems like he’ll be a great defensive center fielder, but he could also end up being a good defensive player instead of great. If he’s a good runner, good fielder, awful hitter he’d be a marginal fourth outfielder type. That’s the explanation of how Buxton could fail to be a contributor at the major league level, and why most people would take Bryant’s floor over Buxton’s. Most people would also take Buxton’s upside, great defense, baserunning, and average to go with good power, over Bryant’s.

For the question of unreasonable hype for Bryant . . . is this the first year you’ve paid attention to baseball? To say that anything unusual has happened in Bryant’s coverage totally ignores the hype surrounding Delmon Young, Jason Heyward, Matt Wieters, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, etc. Top prospects ALWAYS get more hype than their likely performance would grant them.

florida ron
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florida ron

Cardinal fan alert.

BMarkham
Guest
BMarkham

@FloridaRon,

I doubt it. The Cardinals fans I know of fear Kris Bryant to an irrational degree.

Spencer
Guest
Spencer

I don’t think anyone’s disagreeing Bryant could be a great player, personally. I think the only arguments in this specific thread are coming from people that are tired of hearing so much about a guy who is not the only exciting prospect in baseball, and who is not at all guaranteed for greatness… which, to be fair, was the point of the article.

jdbolick
Member

The part you quoted is fine, as Bryant has realized more of his potential at this particular moment. Buxton’s floor is higher than Bryant’s floor, as the speed and defense will play regardless while prodigious power only matters when you can actually make contact, but on the range of possible outcomes Bryant looks like a safer bet right now.

Matthew
Guest
Matthew

All I am saying is that I personally would still take Buxton. And I bet there are several GMs that would too. Bryant will be a very good hitter, but that is where all of this value will come from.

jdbolick
Member

I would too, for the record.

Rational Fan
Guest
Rational Fan

Several? I’d guess more than 50% of the leagues general managers would take Buxton. We didn’t see a ton of HR’s for 5-6 years so now baseball is foaming at the mouth in regards to power. If the guy doesn’t make consistent enough contact, he literally won’t help you do anything else. Most overrated and over hyped prospect I’ve seen in my years following baseball.

Carlos Rodon is probably as advanced as Kris Bryant, but it won’t be breaking news on MLB network and Sportscenter when he’s called up. It wasn’t breaking news when he was sent down. Boras has done a hell of a job getting his client attention, but that’s all it is. He’s not even the #1 prospect according to some publications but he’s getting treated like he’s Babe Ruth.

David who is now unsure of his robot status
Guest
David who is now unsure of his robot status

Oh come now. He’s not even the most overhyped slugging 3B in the last 12 months.
Sure, the noise for the last two weeks has been absurd, but the ratio of hype to likelihood of big league stardom for Joey Gallo has been multiples higher than Bryant’s.

Matthew
Guest
Matthew

Come one David Robot Status:

Everyone thinks Bryant will be a decent major leaguer. As I threw out: Pedro Alvarez is a decent major leaguer and that seems like a lower outcome.

Joey Gallo’s “floor” seems to be Telvin Nash and reasonable ceiling something along the lines of Mark Reynolds.

Brandon Warne
Guest

Not that it matters, Rational Fan, but Scott Boras is Rodon’s agent, too.

Robot
Guest
Robot

Dave is now ruffling the feathers of the Minnesota Twins fans. Bashing Byron Buxton is definitely the best way to do it?

Robot
Guest
Robot

Was supposed to be an!, not an ?.