Throughout the course of every Major League superstar’s career, they go through periods where they become overrated. We tend to see this with star players right after they win the MVP, such as Buster Posey in 2012, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson in 2015, and Jose Altuve in 2017. This is in no way a knock on any of these players: it is natural for anyone deemed to be the best in his respective league to also be the subject of the most scrutiny and the highest expectations. However, a year or two after these players are praised to the extreme, something interesting happens. Everyone becomes so tired of talking about them that they become severely underrated. This is precisely where Kris Bryant is in 2019. In an era where third base is among the deepest and most talented positions, Bryant has been somewhat overlooked in a league filled with Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Alex Bregman, and Matt Chapman.
Bryant finished the first half of this year with a 148 wRC+, which is the tenth best mark in the league, and the only third basemen who rank ahead of him are Rendon and Bregman. Interestingly enough, KB had a 148 wRC+ in his MVP year as well. His .400 wOBA this year ranks 9th in the league and beats the .396 wOBA that he posted in 2016. While these numbers might suggest that Bryant is finding himself again, the fact of the matter is that he has always been this good, and he is remarkably consistent with the bat. Including this year and excluding his injury plagued 2018 campaign, Bryant has gone 148, 146, 148 in wRC+, and .400, .399, and .396 in wOBA in his last three healthy seasons (2019, 2017, 2016, respectively). His prowess at the plate has translated to a 3.6 fWAR which ranks 9th in the league and has made him the Cubs’ first half MVP.
In 2016, Bryant slashed .292/.385/.554 compared to this year’s .297/.403/.552. He has improved his OBP from elite to one of the best marks in the league, and his slugging percentage has remained about the same. Still, as great as Kris Bryant has been this season, I do not think that he has been quite as good as he was in 2016. A quick look at his expected stats and Statcast metrics show slight overpeformance that could lead to some regression in the second half of the season. While KB’s slugging percentage has remained above .550 this year, his .491 xSLG pales in comparison to the .550 xSLG he posted in 2016. Halfway through the year, Bryant’s xwOBA of .377 is not significantly lower than his .404 wOBA, but it is something to look out for. MVP KB posted a .388 xwOBA which was much closer to his .396 wOBA that year. Keep in mind also that Bryant traditionally overperforms his expected stats slightly because he doesn’t make as much hard contact as guys like Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, or Kyle Schwarber. Along with his expected stats, Bryant’s Statcast metrics show that he has not been quite as good this year as in 2016, but he is not too far off. According to Statcast, Bryant’s Barrel%, Exit Velocity, Launch Angle, and Hard Hit% are all down slightly from the MVP year, but he is posting career bests excluding 2016 in each of those categories. The fact that his numbers this year are even comparable to the year he was deemed the best player in the National League is super impressive, and this upward trend tells me it is entirely plausible that Bryant can get to that level of play again.
While the numbers show that Kris Bryant was better in 2016 than this year, there are actually some areas where he has been better in 2019. Kris has increased his BB% from 10.7 to 12.3 and slashed his K% from 22.0 to 19.5. This increase in walk rate has caused Bryant’s OBP to jump over .400. If he can keep getting on base at this prodigious clip, he will continue to be one of the best hitters in the league.
I mentioned earlier that Bryant’s Weighted Runs Created Plus is the same as it was in 2016. wRC+ is a fantastic statistic that is arguably the best metric for determining how well a hitter has performed over a certain period of time. However, it does not account for potential over and underperformance, so at times it can make a player seem better or worse than their true talent level. Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Runs Created Plus (DRC+) is an extraordinarily useful metric that attempts to account for a hitter’s total offensive contributions and true skill level by including factors such as the skill level of the opposing pitcher, and even the weather conditions a game is played during. Aggregating these values according to Prospectus’ formula results in the total number of runs a player “deserves”, rather than what he might or might not have gotten. In 2016, Bryant posted a 140 DRC+ compared to his 136 DRC+ this year. This shows us that despite some slight over performance in the first half of the season, his skill level is very close to where he was in his MVP season, and he is still very much the same player.
Needless to say, Kris Bryant is a beast. His remarkable consistency and elite hitting legitimately could make him a Hall of Famer one day. The only variable will be whether he can stay healthy for the remainder of his career. I hope Bryant can come out after the All Star Break and replicate his great first half so that more than just fans from Chicago realize he is arguably a top 15 player in the league. Although Javy Baez is flashier, KB is the Cubs’ best player and will continue to be as long as he can stay on the field.
Featured Image: Justin K. Aller, Getty Images