Kris Bryant Might Be the Best All-Around Player in the NL

Yesterday, Kris Bryant did what he’s best known for; hit the crap out of the baseball. In the Cubs 9-6 victory over the Brewers, Bryant went 5 for 5 with a double and a pair of home runs, giving him 30 homers for the season. The big day raised his season line to .296/.392/.564 and pushed him up to a 152 wRC+, second in the NL, behind only Daniel Murphy. This isn’t exactly breaking news, but Kris Bryant can really hit.

But Kris Bryant is also really good at a bunch of other things that don’t get as much attention, and given his monstrous production yesterday, I thought it would be a good time to talk about all the other reasons why Kris Bryant might be the best all-around player in the National League.

Let’s start with a skill that we almost never talk about, but Bryant happens to be particularly exceptional in. As a middle-of-the-order hitter on a team with high on-base guys at the top of the order, Kris Bryant comes up to the plate with men on base a lot, and as such, Kris Bryant has a lot of opportunities to hit into double plays. In fact, according to Baseball-Reference, Bryant has come up to the plate 125 times when a double play was possible, the fifth highest total in baseball, and the second highest total in the NL, behind only his teammate, Anthony Rizzo, who is at 128 double play opportunities.

A league average hitter bounces into a double play about 11% of the time they have the chance to do so, so based on that, we’d expect Bryant to have hit into 14 double plays this year. You know how many Bryant has actually hit into? Three.

So despite having the fifth highest number of chances to hit into a double play of anyone in baseball, Bryant actually has the sixth lowest GIDP total of any hitter in baseball with at least 400 plate appearances. The only guys to hit into fewer double plays are leadoff hitters (Chase Utley, Odubel Herrera, Charlie Blackmon, Matt Carpenter) and Danny Espinosa. Bryant and Espinosa are tied for the league lead in lowest percentage of double play opportunities actually grounded into, at just 2%.

Now, you might say that double plays are often bang-bang plays at first base, so whether a guy happens to be called safe or out on close calls is subject to some variance, and could easily be a fluke. I’d agree with you, except Kris Bryant also posted the lowest percentage of double plays grounded into last year (5%, seven GIDPs in 147 opportunities) too. Over the last two seasons, of hitters with at least 200 chances to hit into a double play, only one player — Chris Davis — has hit into fewer than the 10 double plays Bryant has grounded into, and Davis has hit into nine of them. Bryant is basically at the top of the scale in terms of double play avoidance.

Now, you might notice that Bryant and Davis have some similarities. Both are extreme flyball hitters, which is obviously one of the best ways to avoid grounding into a double play; grounding, after all, is the first word in the phrase. Bryant and Davis also strike out a fair amount of the time, so part of their double play avoidance is that they just swing and miss regularly, making one out instead of two. But it’s worth noting that this is the upside that comes with their skillset, and it creates some real value, despite what some announcers will tell you about the need to just put the bat on the ball as often as possible.

Remember, Bryant has hit into 11 fewer double plays than the average hitter based on his number of opportunities this year. Because most batting statistics are only measuring whether a hitter did something successfully divided by the number of chances they had, there’s no room in metrics like BA, OBP, or SLG to capture the additional harm that double plays cause, but obviously, hitting into a double play is significantly worse for a team’s offense than simply making one out, either by strikeout, flyout, or beating out a grounder before the infield can turn two.

That’s why we track a metric called wGDP, which measures the amount of runs created above or below the average for a team’s offense based on how often a hitter grounds into a double play, based on their chances to do so. The spread in value between players in wGDP isn’t that large, but at the extremes, it can definitely add up. And Bryant is definitely at the extreme positive end of this scale.

In 2016, Bryant ranks first with +3.8 wGDP, which means he’s added nearly four runs to the Cubs offense through his ability to avoid double plays. Bryant also ranked first in the majors last year, at +2.9 wGDP. And that’s just compared to the average hitter; many of the guys who hit for power in baseball are really terrible at hitting into double plays, since hitting for power often requires you to be a big slow guy who can’t really run well. But Bryant is giving the Cubs the power of a cleanup hitter with the double play avoidance of a speed guy, which is one of the reasons their offense is a bit more efficient than we’d expect just by looking at their raw batting lines.

Of course, this is a small thing, and no one would claim that double play avoidance is now some critical skill that makes Bryant a superstar. But he happens to be really good at nearly every small thing there is. For instance, you might not look at Bryant’s 21-for-30 stolen base success rate and think he’s a terrific baserunner, but he really is.

This season, Bryant has taken the extra base — as defined by Baseball-Reference as going more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double — 56% of the time; the league average is 40%. According to UBR, which measures baserunning value beyond stolen base attempts, Bryant has added 4.8 runs to the Cubs offense through his work on the bases since getting to the big leagues, the 12th highest total among qualified hitters. The guy at #11? Mike Trout, at +4.9 baserunning runs.

Kris Bryant isn’t Mike Trout, of course. No one is. But if you look at the numbers over the last year, you might be surprised how close it is.

Trout and Bryant, Last 365 Days
Mike Trout 694 0.310 0.428 0.563 0.416 171 8 67 2 9.5
Kris Bryant 709 0.306 0.392 0.573 0.408 157 5 54 10 8.9

The gap in true talent between them isn’t that close, in all likelihood. The overall gap is shrunk by the fact that Bryant has rated exceptionally well by UZR, while Trout has graded out as about an average center fielder. We have enough data on Trout now that we can be reasonably confident in the fact that he’s not an elite center fielder anymore, but Bryant’s probably not as good with the glove as UZR is making him look. Playing defense behind elite contact managers like Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks could well be propping up Bryant’s UZR a bit, so it’s best not to take that number as a perfect representation of his talent level.

But it’s also probably worth noting that Bryant’s other performance metrics do align with the type of player who would be a good defender. We’ve already talked about his baserunning, which speaks to his athleticism and instincts, but he’s also just faster than people give him credit for. As Owen Watson wrote last year, Bryant is also the best hitter at baseball at turning infield ground balls into hits. Since getting to the big leagues, 15% of Bryant’s infield grounders have led to infield hits, a staggering total for a guy who hits like Bryant hits.

The only other guys even over 10% since the start of last year? Odubel Herrera, Starling Marte, Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, and Xander Bogaerts. Infield hits are largely a function of speed, and Bryant racks up infield hits like he’s one of the fastest guys in baseball. And maybe he just is. Last year, Mike Petriello noted, using Statcast data, that Bryant got up to a top speed of 21 mph on a triple. He just isn’t your typical lumbering slugger; Kris Bryant is a terrific athlete, and that shows up in every facet of the game.

If Bryant was a few inches shorter, I don’t think there’d be that much skepticism about the idea that he might be a very good defender at both third base and the outfield. After all, every other performance metric there is suggests that he utilizes his speed and athleticism extremely well, and he consistently rates near the top of the same leaderboards that are generally dominated by little guys who play excellent defense. Bryant’s unlikely to be as valuable defensively going forward as his current UZR suggests, but with 2,300 innings of very positive data and a lot of other markers that suggest Bryant utilizes his athleticism in exceptional ways, it seems likely that he’s at least an above average defender.

Put it all together, and you have a guy who performs like the classic five-tool superstar. He hits for average and power, he runs well, he fields, and he’s got a strong throwing arm. Given his lower-tier contact rates, he’ll probably never be described as a traditional five tool guy, but performance is what counts, and Bryant’s ability to hit the ball hard when he does make contact makes up for the strikeouts, leaving Bryant as one of the game’s most complete players.

The Cubs have a lot of great players, but Kris Bryant is their greatest player, and given what he’s doing in every part of the game this year, he might just be the most complete player in the National League.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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5 years ago

Can’t wait to see johnforthegiants reasons for why KB sucks

Brians Sticky Sock
5 years ago
Reply to  victorvran

Well it usually centers around how we (most FG readers) don’t understand BAPIP and we shouldn’t question him until we do…

5 years ago

now i’m no babip expert like he is but i wonder what there is to be said about a cubs pitching babip that since the break is back to the level of the first two and three quarter months of the season which was a ‘fluke’ as opposed to the three week stretch to end the first half that was their true skill level.

5 years ago
Reply to  374285942768

I think everybody here knows more about BABIP than he does. I’m pretty sure my German Shepherd does, too.

Michael Carpenter
5 years ago
Reply to  victorvran

There have been 3 Cubs-related articles this week…johnforthegiants is currently looking at team BABIP and and he is absolutely rock-hard.

5 years ago

I bet he can’t get hard.