The One Stain on Kris Bryant’s Record

A few days ago, the Cubs rallied to beat the Blue Jays in 10 innings. It was the 10th inning that was the most dramatic, but the Cubs had a chance to finish things off the frame before. In a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, Kris Bryant batted with two on and one out, against Ryan Tepera. It was one of the highest-leverage plate appearances for Bryant on the year, and he quickly found himself behind 0-and-2. A borderline ball call extended the at-bat, but then Tepera threw a pitch outside. The screenshot says everything you need to know about what happened next.

Kris Bryant is one of the best players in baseball, and he might well be the best player in the National League. Of that, there’s no question, and before we get any deeper, I want to try to get one simple point across. It’s probably futile, but, anyway: There’s a difference between saying a player is unclutch, and saying a player has been unclutch. The former would be a hell of a statement. The latter is easy enough to demonstrate with evidence. Clutch performance tends to be volatile; it hasn’t been shown to be a sticky attribute. It is not my belief that Kris Bryant is actually, naturally, unclutch.

But Kris Bryant has been incredibly unclutch. Historically unclutch. It’s the one place where he’s come up short. As much as I love the things he can do, the data he’s assembled is stunning.

Why don’t I believe that Bryant is unclutch? Well, generally, it would be a silly belief. The starting point for any given player in the major leagues ought to be that said player can handle the spotlight, that he can handle intense pressure. Major leaguers have been selected in part for their immunity to stress. You’d need a lot of evidence to be convinced that someone has this particular weakness. It’s otherwise so difficult to imagine. And then, specifically, Bryant was a clutch hitter a few years ago, as a rookie. He made an immediate positive impression.

So I’m not over on that side of the fence. And yet — and yet, there’s the information we do have. As you might know, our leaderboards track a Clutch statistic. It’s founded upon win probability, and it essentially measures how much a player has actually helped, versus how much you would’ve expected that player to help. It’s a measure of timing, and although it isn’t perfect, nothing is. And this year, among hitters, Kris Bryant has baseball’s very lowest Clutch score. That’s half of this.

The other half is that, last year, among hitters, Bryant had one of baseball’s very lowest Clutch scores. That’s two years in a row, in a statistic that tends to wildly bounce. Single-season Clutch doesn’t mean very much because the sample is small. Two-season Clutch doubles the size of the sample, and this scatter plot, with Bryant in yellow, demonstrates just how much he’s stood out from everyone else:

That’s a plot that would have a flat trend line. That’s a plot that’s basically random, as one would expect. We’re all conditioned to be clutch-baseball skeptics, and for good reason. That doesn’t mean that unclutch performances don’t take place. Over the last two seasons combined, 280 players have batted at least 500 times. Bryant ranks third in WPA/LI, and ninth in RE24. He ranks 40th in actual WPA, because he ranks dead last in Clutch.

We have, on our leaderboards, win-expectancy data stretching back to 1974. That’s more than four decades of information, so I set about examining what it has to say. It’s pretty easy to look up the lowest single-season Clutch marks. I decided to work a little harder, calculating the lowest consecutive-season Clutch marks. Bryant has fared poorly these two years in a row, so, given that, where does he rank within a historical context? This’ll speak for itself.

Least Clutch Performances, Consecutive Years
Player Year 1 Year 2 Y1 Clutch Y2 Clutch Total Clutch
Kris Bryant 2016 2017 -2.37 -2.94 -5.31
Gary Carter 1978 1979 -0.98 -3.73 -4.71
Gary Carter 1979 1980 -3.73 -0.89 -4.62
Sammy Sosa 2001 2002 -1.69 -2.88 -4.57
Josh Reddick 2011 2012 -0.62 -3.83 -4.45
Tony Armas 1984 1985 -2.37 -2.08 -4.45
Damion Easley 1999 2000 -2.51 -1.93 -4.44
Javy Lopez 2003 2004 -1.58 -2.77 -4.35
Jermaine Dye 2008 2009 -2.63 -1.70 -4.33
Ken Griffey Jr. 1997 1998 -2.07 -2.25 -4.32
Since 1974

Last place. Or, I guess, first place, if you like to play with your sorting. From a win-expectancy perspective, over the past two seasons, Kris Bryant as a hitter has been something like five wins less valuable than you might’ve expected him to be. He’s still been helpful, because his abilities and skillset are elite, but this might be literally his one single negative. Bryant has delivered, overall, but he hasn’t delivered in the most important spots. Not with regularity. This table here helps to explain the table just above.

Kris Bryant, 2016 – 2017
Leverage 2016 wRC+ 2017 wRC+ Combined wRC+ Percentile Rank
Low 167 181 173 100%
Medium 144 111 131 87%
High 49 24 37 1%

In the least important situations, Kris Bryant has been baseball’s second-best hitter. In the most important situations, Kris Bryant has been baseball’s second-worst hitter. I set minimums of 100 plate appearances for each split. The only player worse than Bryant in those important spots has been Ender Inciarte, whose two-year high-leverage wRC+ is an unfathomable 10. That’s an awful lot worse than Bryant’s mark, but still, Bryant is the next player up on the list. Every hit and walk matter, no matter the circumstances, but Bryant hasn’t had that even distribution.

In part, this is probably why the NL Central is even remotely competitive. The Cubs still have the lead, and the Cubs are still the overwhelming favorites, but their lead is just 3.5 games over the Brewers, and 4.5 games over the Cardinals. Offensively speaking, the Cubs rank last in the NL in Clutch. The Cardinals are only a little higher, but the Brewers are higher still. The Cubs as a team haven’t delivered so many of those big hits, with Bryant being the single biggest underachiever. With a few more clutch knocks, the Cubs would’ve been able to more effectively pull away. Perhaps they won’t have needed those hits in the end, but timing has allowed that division to stay a legitimate race.

To get back to where I started, Kris Bryant should still be considered one of baseball’s premier superstars. There are few things he can’t do, and even this one significant issue is almost certainly just a function of noise. When Bryant’s career is up, these seasons will probably look like random blips, signifying nothing but their own joint existence. But one cannot deny they’ve existed. It is, one could safely conclude, the damnedest thing.

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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David Spracale
David Spracale

Oh boy these comments are about to become a hot take factory.

Art Fay
Art Fay

Ha. Here’s one:

So I guess playing the Reds, no matter the situation, is considered unclutch. Because that’s where most of his stats come from. Without the Reds last year he doesn’t even sniff MVP.

Perhaps beating the Reds to a pulp should be considered clutch.