At some point prior to Randal Grichuk ruining my evening, Len Kasper noted during the broadcast that Kris Bryant has put up an early stat line that is remarkably similar to his numbers from last season at the same point. Intrigued, I decided to look into things a little further. Here’s what I found:
Through 5/23/16 (42 games): .271/.358/.488, 9 HR, 30 R, 31 RBI, .367 wOBA, 130 wRC+
Through 6/2/15 (42 games): .273/.387/.468, 7 HR, 28 R, 33 RBI, .373 wOBA, 137 wRC+
Almost exactly the same stats. The only big difference, and it’s one you’d have to dig into the splits to find, is that he’s already hit 5 home runs on the road this season after belting that many in all of 2016. Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a sign that last year’s number was a weird aberration or that Bryant is learning how to be a major-league ballplayer and is much more comfortable on the road. I’ll chalk it up to a little of both.
And you can’t overlook Bryant’s versatility, as evidenced by his increase in outfield innings. Because of injuries and the need to find room for guys like Javy Baez and Tommy La Stella, Bryant has already spent nearly twice as many innings out there already in 2016 (185.1 innings) as he did all of last year (98 innings). There was even that one crazy inning in Milwaukee when Bryant moved from left field to third, then to first, and then back to left.
Oh, there’s one other difference too. Since you’re all huge fans of mine, you’ve no doubt read my pre-season piece on Bryant’s need to find a way to make up for the “luck” that drove much of his success in 2015. In fact, you probably read it two or three times. For the two of you that missed it, however, I’ll provide a nutshell version for the sake of context.
Bryant’s .378 batting average on balls in play last season (79 points above league average) was a little higher than what we’d generally consider to be sustainable, and his 30.6% strikeout rate was also too high for comfort. He walked a lot (11.8%) as well, but not quite enough to completely offset the other numbers. If we look at just those first 42 games, Bryant’s BABIP was .376, he was striking out at a 30.1% clip, and walking in 14.5% of his plate appearances. In short, it looked as though there might be a scary regression monster hiding under the rookie’s bed.
To wit, Bryant’s BABIP has dropped all the way down to a more pedestrian .298 this season (2 points higher than league average), signifying a reduction in good fortune. Walks are down a little bit as well, which accounts for the difference in OBP. How, then, are the other numbers so similar? Well, if BABIP is way down but production is pretty much the same, that means…anyone? You? No? Seriously, it’s as if you people want me to do everything for you around here.
It means Bryant is simply putting more balls in play. He has markedly cut down on his strikeouts, which are at only 19.1% (a 36.5% drop) so far in 2016, and has improved his overall contact rate to 73.6% after logging only 66.3% last season. This is very good news, folks.
I know there could be a tendency to look at the numbers and think there’s really been no improvement. They are, after all, nearly identical across the board. I mean, it’s almost scary. Given that the guy’s a year older and more experienced, you might want to see him posting better stats. But the thing is, he is posting better stats. While playing multiple positions, no less.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but when luck runs out you’d better make damn sure you’re still good. And Kris Bryant, my friends, is really good. He’s showing that this year as he continues to be one of the best offensive weapons in the game without the benefit of disproportionately good fortune. What’s more, he figures to be able to continue to improve even further.
League-average contact rate is right around 78% and the league leaders are in the 90% range. Bryant’s never going to find himself among that latter group, but it’s not at all unreasonable to expect him to reach 80%, which is where Anthony Rizzo sat for his first three seasons with the Cubs (83% over last two). It should come as no surprise that Rizzo has improved his own strikeout rate over his time in Chicago as well.
Fun fact: in his first 49 MLB games, Rizzo had a walk rate of 13.7% and a K-rate of 30.1%, almost identical to Bryant’s totals through his first 42 games.
Weird, right? Also promising. Mostly promising. If Bryant can follow in the path of his Bryzzo Souvenir Company partner — and I think he can — there won’t be many more think pieces explaining how his stats are the same as the year before and why that’s a good thing.