The One Problem With Kris Bryant’s MVP Case

Kris Bryant is everything you could want in an MVP candidate. He hits, he runs, he plays defense, he moves around, he’s in there every day — Bryant is an outstanding player on an outstanding team. You don’t have to worry about the Cubs wasting him, and not going to the playoffs. If Bryant’s teammates are doing him any harm, it could be because there are too many good ones — even without Bryant, the Cubs would be fine. It speaks to the roster’s strength, but Bryant is the best regular. He’s maybe, or probably, the best all-around player in the National League.

There’s more than a month left to go, so various leaderboards are going to change. Performances will change, and perceptions will go along with them. That being said, Kris Bryant has to be thought of as the NL MVP front-runner. By which I mean, I assume he has the most support. And, what a player to throw your support behind! In so many ways, Bryant would be deserving. There’s just one little problem. That one little problem is basically the entire counter-argument.

Some of you are probably already ahead of me. In part this is because the same sort of argument could’ve been made a year ago, against Bryce Harper. The voters didn’t care, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Last week I wrote about how Michael Saunders has been incredibly unclutch. In fact, he’s been one of the least-clutch players of the past 40 years. Saunders has nothing to do with this year’s NL MVP, but the idea in there is significant. See, that post included a table of unclutch player-seasons. I cut it off at 10, but had I stretched it just a little bit more, you would’ve seen 2016 Kris Bryant. The overall numbers love him. Adjusted for context, they’re decidedly less affectionate.

A year ago, it was Harper who was fairly unclutch. Here are this year’s current bottom 10:

Least-Clutch Hitters, 2016
Name Clutch WPA/LI WPA
Michael Saunders -3.2 1.8 -1.5
Kris Bryant -2.6 4.6 1.9
Nelson Cruz -2.6 4.0 1.5
Randal Grichuk -2.4 1.8 -0.6
Joe Mauer -1.9 1.8 -0.1
Brian Dozier -1.9 3.0 1.2
Miguel Cabrera -1.9 4.1 2.1
Jackie Bradley Jr. -1.8 2.3 0.4
Freddie Freeman -1.8 3.9 2.2
Evan Longoria -1.8 4.1 2.2

You should still be floored by Saunders — he’s out there on his own. But then there’s Bryant, who’s cost the Cubs real wins with his lousy timing. Now, as the last column shows, Bryant has still been an overall offensive positive. He’s been way too good to not be helpful. But WPA/LI shows a kind of leverage-adjusted offensive value. WPA shows actual offensive value. By WPA/LI, Bryant has been as valuable as Daniel Murphy. By WPA, he’s been as valuable as Cameron Rupp.

WPA doesn’t factor in defensive performance, or versatility. It doesn’t account for position, and it doesn’t account for the majority of a player’s baserunning. Because Bryant, again, is an all-around positive, just looking at WPA sells him short. But what this gets at is that his hitting this year has been less helpful than the overall numbers would suggest. That’s not spin; I don’t have anything against Kris Bryant. It’s just how things have happened. And just as with Saunders, this is an easy thing to break down. In low-leverage situations, Bryant’s wRC+ ranks in the 99th percentile. In medium-leverage situations, it ranks in the 85th percentile. In high-leverage situations, it ranks in the eighth percentile. Bryant has done the most damage when the results have mattered the least. That’s all this says.

I want to make it absolutely clear I don’t think Kris Bryant is a naturally unclutch player. These splits can be almost random over smaller samples. Bryant this year has been horrible in high-leverage situations, but he’s still been better in those spots than Miguel Cabrera. The second-best hitter in baseball in those important spots has been Yonder Alonso. And, importantly, while Bryant has a Clutch rating of -2.6, just last year as a rookie he finished at +1.9. In consecutive years, Bryant has been one of baseball’s most-clutch hitters, and one of baseball’s least-clutch hitters. Which leads you to the natural conclusion that Bryant is neither clutch nor unclutch, like pretty much everyone else.

This isn’t a true-talent conversation. This is a stuff-that’s-happened conversation. When I wrote about Saunders, I included a table showing his 50 highest-leverage plate appearances. That table was pretty big, but I liked the idea, so here’s a version for 2016 Bryant, only going to 25 plate appearances instead.

Bryant’s 25 Biggest PAs
Leverage Index Result WPA
9.04 Two outs -0.53
5.93 Out -0.30
5.76 Out -0.18
5.67 Out -0.15
5.22 Single, run 0.18
4.69 Out -0.17
4.61 Out 0.05
4.45 Out -0.11
4.39 Out -0.12
3.98 Out -0.11
3.47 Out -0.08
3.44 Out -0.09
3.42 Out, run -0.05
3.38 Out -0.09
3.33 Out -0.08
3.22 Out, run 0.00
3.12 Single, two runs 0.23
3.05 Walk 0.08
3.04 Out -0.08
3.03 Out -0.08
2.89 Out -0.07
2.89 Double -0.03
2.85 Walk, run 0.10
2.83 Out -0.07
2.83 Double 0.20

Of those 25 events, 18 reduced the Cubs’ chances of winning, six increased the Cubs’ chances of winning, and one accomplished nothing. The sum WPA here is -1.53. Look at those top 16 events — you have 16 outs, and three runs scored. It’s not quite as absurd as Saunders’ table, but that’s not exactly the benchmark. Kris Bryant has been fantastic. I’m sure the Cubs wouldn’t change a thing. Not about his skillset. But probably about his timing.

I can’t tell you how much to care about this stuff. Maybe you don’t like the idea of partially evaluating players based on their contexts. They’re not really that responsible for the situations in which they find themselves. But this seems like the difference between observing past value, and projecting future value. I would project Kris Bryant to have enormous future value, starting today. But he’s been so unclutch, and Addison Russell has been so clutch, that Russell has a significantly higher 2016 WPA. And Russell has been no less valuable a runner or a defender. You could make a real argument that Russell has been more valuable to the Cubs. It would seem controversial, but then, how controversial is it, really? Just how much do we really want to ignore the timing of events?

A funny consequence of looking at things this way — Corey Seager has also been unclutch. Granted, he’s been less unclutch than Bryant, but still the two remain linked. And because of their unclutch performances, in theory that opens up the MVP race to other candidates. In reality, I doubt this’ll matter. Bryce Harper just demonstrated that. But there’s nothing wrong with thinking. Kris Bryant provides an awful lot to think about.

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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7 years ago

While it is no longer as valued as it used to be, many voters still care about RBI. One consequence of unclutch performance is a lack of RBI (I would think). I wonder how much RBI and clutch correlate? If someone ends up with way more RBI than Bryant, won’t that sort of have the same effect on the voting as if they actually looked at WPA?

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Weirdly his RBI’s haven’t really been affected by this, Rizzo has a far greater clutch score than Bryant but only 1 RBI more so if there not looking at WPA itself they’ll probably not pick it up.

7 years ago
Reply to  BritishCub

Harper had only 99 rbis last year and almost noone even noticed. People got angry if you even pointed it out.

7 years ago

Yes many intelligent, sabermetrically inclined people did. Many dumb local sports writers (who were able to vote) would probably still reference RBI. That’s my point.

Brians Sticky Sock
7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Haven’t seen JFTG all week, but now that there’s a Cubs article, he’s back… like clockwork. What is his obsession with the Cubs?

7 years ago

I’m obsessed with WPA and Clutch. I also posted about Jeff’s Michael Saunders article about Clutch and that had nothing to do with the Cubs. I just made a post about clutch hitting in the article about Joey Votto and that had nothing to do with the Cubs. Recently I posted about clutching hitting in an article about Bryce Harper which had nothing to do with the Cubs. If you only see my posts when they’re related to the Cubs, it’s because you’re only reading articles about the Cubs, so it looks like you’re the one who’s obsessed with the Cubs.

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

But RBIs is often correlated to WPA and Clutch, so if you think that this is at least a factor in MVP considerations (and Jeff’s point in this article is that WPA and Clutch can be a legitimate factor), then RBIs are one way to talk to less aware people about things like this.

7 years ago
Reply to  BritishCub

And Rizzo probably has driven in Bryant…a lot. Bryant has camped out in the #2 hole and seems to do well there. If we slip him and Rizzo Rizzo probably loses RBI but his R total would go up. Vice-versa for Bryant.

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

For the record, I don’t think RBI should matter, but many people who actually vote probably do think it should matter.

Similarly, many voters think that Jered Weaver’s losses somehow impact Mike Trout’s value and that the Reds giving up all the home runs in baseball makes Joey Votto less valuable. Doesn’t make it right, but that’s how it plays out.