Happy Kris Bryant Day!
Kris Bryant is finally free. After spending his obligatory two weeks in the minors, the highly-touted slugger has been summoned to the major leagues. He’ll slot into the Cubs lineup today, and will be playing third base, putting an end to the much-maligned Mike Olt era in Chicago.
By now, you’re probably well familiar with Bryant’s prospect pedigree. After three monster seasons at the University of San Diego, the Cubs took Bryant with the 2nd overall pick in 2013, right behind Mark Appel. Bryant made quick work of the minor leagues, destroying opposing pitchers to the tune of .330/.429/.662 in his year and a half in the minors. Bryant was a highly-touted prospect dating back to his college days, but his prospect status ticked up to elite following his 2014 performance. He hit .325/.438/.661 between Double-A and Triple-A last year, and belted a whopping 43 homers along the way — the most of any player in affiliated baseball.
Unsurprisingly, KATOH’s all over him. My system forecasts the slugger for a remarkable 16 WAR through age-28, which was the 2nd most of any prospect last winter; Only Joc Pederson earned a higher projection. Here are the probabilities my system spits out for Bryant through age-28.
|MLB||>4 WAR||>6 WAR||>8 WAR||>10 WAR||>12 WAR||>16 WAR|
It goes without saying that Bryant’s projection has a lot do do with his mammoth power. Bryant’s .335 isolated power was the second highest among qualified hitters in the minors last year, bested only by Joey Gallo. And after adjusting for league average, Bryant’s mark was among the highest figures we’ve ever seen from a prospect in the high minors. Ryan Howard was the last hitter to post a higher league-adjusted ISO than Bryant’s in at least 400 plate appearances in either Double-A or Triple-A.
Power is clearly Bryant’s calling card, but there’s more to his offensive game than just hitting dingers. He also draws walks in heaps and steals the occasional base. All of these traits are positive predictors of future performance, and therefore provide a boost to his KATOH projection.
Furthermore, even his batted balls that don’t leave the park still end up falling for hits extremely often. His .406 BABIP in the minors was nothing short of absurd. It’s probably safe to assume that Bryant’s BABIP was helped by some lucky bounces — that’s usually a safe assumption for any BABIP north of .400, even in the minors — but given his power, it’s certainly not hard to believe that Bryant’s true-talent BABIP is much higher than most players. Bryant’s lofty figures are also a testament to just how hard he can hit the ball, and KATOH takes this into account.
Bryant’s obviously a very talented hitter. He absolutely crushed minor league pitching, and if you believe the projections, he’s already one of the best 30 or 40 hitters on the planet. Both Steamer and ZiPS project him for a 130 wRC+ right now, which puts him ahead of names like Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson and Albert Pujols. But as great as he is, Bryant’s not without his flaws.
In KATOH’s eyes, Bryant’s biggest bugaboo is his strikeout rate. His 27% K% from last year wasn’t terrible, per se, but was certainly closer to bad than good. However, these inflated strikeout numbers are really just a symptom of Bryant’s real problem: His inability to make contact.
According to Minor League Central, Bryant made contact just 65% of pitches thrown to him in Triple-A last year, which was 6th lowest among 305 Triple-A players with at least 200 plate appearances. More specifically, he connected on 74% of his swings on pitches inside of the strike zone last year (15th lowest), and 13% of pitches outside of the zone (3rd lowest).
These Z-Contact% and O-Contact% figures were calculated using minor league zone data, which isn’t always entirely accurate. But plain old Contact% can be somewhat deceiving, as it’s influenced by a hitter’s plate discipline. Pitches outside of the strike zone are harder to hit, so players who swing at more of those pitches will have lower contact rates. In any event, let’s compare all of the imperfect data we have on Bryant’s contact profile with those of another player who spent significant time in Triple-A last year.
Their contact profiles are nearly identical. The mystery player made slightly less contact on pitches in the strike zone, but otherwise, these two players look almost exactly the same. That mystery player is Javier Baez. The same Javier Baez who hit .169/.227/.324 in his first half-season in the big leagues, and struck out an unsettling 41% of the time.
Baez was all sorts of terrible last year, and his lack of contact was a big contributor to his terribleness. That Bryant shares Baez’s contact profile is pretty scary. However, there’s one important area where Bryant has Baez beat: Plate discipline.
Both hitters struck out roughly 30% of the time as Iowa Cubs, but unlike Baez, Bryant complemented the strikeouts with an above-average walk rate. Of course, some of those walks were likely the result of pitchers fearing Bryant’s power rather than his laying off good pitches. But Bryant’s swing profile shows that — unlike Baez — he’s not just up there hacking aimlessly. Again, this data is flawedt, but it gets the point across. Relative to Baez, Bryant swung at more pitches inside of the zone, but fewer outside of it.
Bryant’s going to strike out. Strikeouts are just a part of his game, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a good hitter. Adam Dunn, Chris Davis, Giancarlo Stanton and George Springer all rocked the high-strikeout, good-everything-else offensive profile, and made it work. Bryant can make it work too, as long as he swings at the right pitches and does a great deal damage when he does make contact. Bryant did both of those things in the minors, so there’s little reason to think he won’t be able to continue doing so as a big leaguer.
Bryant’s contact and strikeout issues should certainly give you pause, but everything else in his profile is excellent. That’s why KATOH is so smitten with the 23-year-old. His power is off the charts, he runs well and can distinguish good pitches from bad ones. Throw in that he plays an decent third base, and there are myriad ways that Kris Bryant can help the Cubs win ball games. And now, the wait is finally over. At long last, we get to see Bryant do his thing in the majors.