Kris Bryant’s One Offensive Question Mark

Pretty often, we get accused of overvaluing young players and prospects. The line of thinking is that we don’t properly appreciate the chances of a player flaming out and failing to accomplish anything of consequence. Yet, I don’t think we’ve ever been accused of overvaluing Kris Bryant. Around Bryant, there’s developed a consensus. Kiley ranked him first among Cubs prospects, obviously. Keith Law ranked him first in baseball. ZiPS is in love with Bryant, projecting a .364 wOBA. And Steamer, too, projects a .364 wOBA, exceeding its projections for Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano. The No. 1 ZiPS comp is Evan Longoria. Bryant has yet to play in the major leagues, but already he’s considered a huge reason why the 2015 Cubs ought to contend for a playoff spot. He probably won’t be on the team out of camp, but he should be locked in before Memorial Day.

What I don’t intend to do is try to convince you that Bryant is going to bust. I don’t think Bryant is going to bust. He is uncommonly good, and uncommonly powerful, with power to all fields that comes out of a shorter swing than you’d expect. Yet there is one thing about Bryant worth considering as hype continues to build. He’s not a perfect prospect; there’s no such thing as a perfect prospect. Every prospect has a flaw, and Bryant’s is enough to raise the eyebrows. Think of it this way: if Bryant were to disappoint, why might that be? It seems we could already have a sign.

In a way we’ve already been through this with George Springer. Not that the Springer story is complete, and not that Springer is an identical sort of hitter to Bryant, but the issue’s the same. When people talk about Bryant, they generally do acknowledge the strikeouts. The strikeouts, quite clearly, haven’t prevented Bryant from putting up minor-league numbers that break leaderboard pages. What’s so interesting is what’s right underneath the strikeouts. You probably don’t know just how often Kris Bryant has swung at a pitch and missed.

Or, contact rate, if you flip it around. Contact rate tends to hover in the high-70s. That’s how it is in the majors. That’s how it is in Triple-A. That’s how it is in Double-A. You expect power hitters, generally, to swing and miss a little more often than usual, but Bryant last year took things toward an extreme.

In Double-A, Bryant batted just shy of 300 times. He posted a contact rate a hair under 69%, according to Minor League Central. Among players for whom we have data, this was the sixth-lowest contact rate at the level. Bryant, of course, obliterated the baseball when he hit it, and he managed to draw his walks, but his contact rate was lower than, say, Rymer Liriano’s. Joey Gallo showed up at 58%, and that blows Bryant out of the water, but if we get that Gallo is a boom-or-bust unknown, Bryant isn’t that different. Gallo would be sort of a caricature of the profile.

Anyway, forget Double-A. In Triple-A, Bryant also batted just shy of 300 times. He posted a contact rate a hair under 65%, according to the same site. Among players for whom we have data, this was the fourth-lowest contact rate at the level. Somewhat incredibly, fewer than two percentage points separated Bryant and Javier Baez. Fewer than two percentage points separated Bryant and Brett Jackson. Bryant made contact less often than Domingo Santana; Bryant made contact less often than Carlos Peguero. Bryant, understand, has a more refined approach. He’s not a hacker, like Peguero is. But the misses are there when he swings. And not just a little more than average — a lot more than average. In between doubles and dingers, Bryant has been a swing-and-miss machine.

It hasn’t cost him. Bryant owns a four-digit minor-league OPS. Yet the goal isn’t to get Bryant to destroy the ball in the minors — you wonder about how the contact will translate to the very highest level of competition. This is where George Springer is relevant. Springer, in Triple-A, also made about 65% contact. In the majors as a rookie, 61%. Springer also posted a 127 wRC+ because he was able to maximize the contact he did make, but usually you don’t bet on a guy hitting more than twice as many homers as doubles and triples. And, Springer hasn’t yet even played a full season. We don’t actually know what he is.

Bryant’s Triple-A contact rate ranks 25th-lowest since 2008. I already noted Springer and Baez. Brandon Hicks has also been in the same territory. Somewhat distressingly, you also see Mike Olt’s name, not that Olt has ever drawn as much praise as Bryant has. In case I need to keep issuing reminders, Bryant is a better prospect than Olt ever was, but Olt was thought of as a good prospect once upon a time, and contact problems have contributed to his being a disappointment.

If you look in the majors, since 2002, 23 players have batted at least 1,000 times while posting contact rates no higher than 70%. Of those, only four players come in below 65% — Russell Branyan, Wily Mo Pena, Kelly Shoppach, and Mark Reynolds. Only two other players in the group have made contact with fewer than two-thirds of their swings. This whole pool has averaged a 108 wRC+. The superstars are Jim Thome and Giancarlo Stanton. The lesser stars include Richie Sexson, Jack Cust, Ryan Howard, and later-career Sammy Sosa. Thome could be the ultimate Bryant upside, handedness be damned, but Thome maxed out the rest of his offensive profile. If Bryant is going to keep swinging and missing, then if he wants to be highly productive, he needs to get as much as possible out of his eye and his power.

It helps tremendously that Bryant is powerful to all fields. It helps that, even though he hits a ton of fly balls, he only very seldom pops the ball up. Bryant makes a poor amount of contact, but with great and borderline unparalleled quality of contact, and this is the same conversation we’ve had about Springer. Yet given Bryant’s age, it’s possible he won’t keep whiffing. Though it’s unusual to go from being a swing-and-miss hitter to being a contact hitter, Bryant doesn’t necessarily have to whiff as much as Chris Davis. This is the fun comp: as a rookie in his early 20s, Mike Schmidt struck out 31% of the time. The rest of his career, he struck out just 18% of the time. Aramis Ramirez figured contact out, although he was terribly rushed. Rookie Fred McGriff struck out 29% of the time; non-rookie Fred McGriff struck out 18% of the time.

Great players, players with Hall-of-Fame arguments, have begun their careers with contact problems. A contact problem at 22 doesn’t have to be a contact problem at 28. Bryant is a fantastic prospect, and he should become a really helpful everyday player. You just never want to take anything for granted, and Bryant will be entering the majors from a position where he hasn’t made a ton of contact in the minor leagues. That’s an issue until it isn’t one. It isn’t a make-or-break issue. It isn’t an argument to bump Bryant down any prospect lists. This just happens to be the flaw. In Triple-A, Kris Bryant whiffed almost as often as Javier Baez did. That’s not the player the Cubs want Bryant to be.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Fast Eddie
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Fast Eddie

I would rather have great contact with misses than weak contact with none.

witesoxfan
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witesoxfan

You mean you aren’t a fan of Jeff Keppinger?

As a fan, you just hope he improves his contact skills, but it’s not impossible to be a difference maker that strikes out 27-30% of the time.

Rational Fan
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Rational Fan

But it’s impossible to be an elite MLB baseball player if you strike out 30% of the time. You can still be productive, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t have a 30% k-rate and be one of the games elite players… and if you are, your reign near the top won’t last very long.

Giancarlo Stanton
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Giancarlo Stanton

Calm down.

Rational Fan
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Rational Fan

Stanton had a K-Rate of 30% as a rookie, and he was far from an elite player then. He has steadily dropped his rate each of the past three seasons, and amazingly enough he has become more and more dominant as he has done so. Stanton was also much less polished when he came up – Bryant is a somewhat finished product, while Stanton had a ton of room to grow given his age, and actual baseball reps.

2013 Chris Davis
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2013 Chris Davis

You tellin me I’m not elite?

Rational Fan
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Rational Fan

“and if you are, your reign near the top won’t last very long.”

Bip
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Member
Bip

I mean what are you really telling us?

“It’s hard to be an elite player with a 30% rate”

Holy sh- what? No way.

Giancarlo Stanton is a fun example because while you’re hand-waving him away, he actually provides a good example of exactly why you’re wrong. Part of Bryant’s projection involves the very significant chance that he – like more good big leaguers – improves his plate discipline as he gains more experience. While other skills decline with age, this is the one skill that actually tends to improve with age. And it’s the one skill Bryant doesn’t really have.

He has hit like Barry Bonds in the minors. You can understand why he maybe hasn’t put a lot of focus into his approach. If he gets exposed in the bigs, wouldn’t that lead to a refocusing of his efforts? For all we know, a simple change in a approach is all he needs – something he’s never had to do up until this point.

Bip
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Member
Bip

Sigh. 30% K rate.

Brandon
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Brandon

Andrelton Simmons