Written by: John Storey
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It’s hard to believe the Cubs’ controversial decision to suppress Kris Bryant and his Major League Debut came over five years ago. A World Series later, Chicago stands at crossroads. Their former top prospect is coming off the heels of a difficult season. The same can be said about the Cubs, whose elimination from World Series contention came after just two games against the Miami Marlins.
Now, the Cubs organization is faced with the decision to try to continue to contend with the core that led them to the holy land in 2016 or to sell off their assets and begin building a new future. One of the critical elements of arriving at a decision is their third baseman. Bryant’s value in the eyes of both the Cubs and the rest of baseball will likely have significant implications on the future of the Cubs.
Kris’ hardware includes an MVP and Rookie of the Year award. He suffered a down year in 2018, however, spent time on the then disabled list mending left shoulder inflammation. Otherwise, the three-time all-star has been very productive very quietly until 2020.
Between the start of 2015 and 2020, Bryant ranked third among position players in fWAR, trailing only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. With a consistently high barrel rate and some crafty speed early in his career it was impossible to discount Bryant as a valuable player. That begs the obvious question. What went wrong in 2020? And how should we value him going forward?
To call 2020 dismal for Kris Bryant would be an understatement. His wRC+ didn’t just fall below 100 for the first time in his career but fell 49% below his previous career low. His OPS plummeted .259 points, while his wOBA tumbled .94 points. It would be nice to say that Bryant’s production was redeemed by some closer-to-normal expected numbers, however according to his batted ball profile, he was about as successful as could be expected. It’s senseless to run around citing aggregate statistics, as they all tell the same sad story.
There’s no easy way to diagnose Kris’ frustrating season. Even his increased strikeout rate won’t be easily explained by any significant shift in plate discipline. Bryant saw a sizable change in the frequency that he was making contact with outside pitches, however, he’d had success at a similar (lower) rate before, in 2015.
|Season||Outside Swing%||Inside Swing%||Outside Contact%||Inside Contact%||Zone%||Swinging|
Ultimately, Bryant’s decline in productivity is rooted in his platoon splits. A short season and the sheer quantity of right-handed pitchers makes platoon splits a bit precarious – they can easily be deemed a small sample. However, given the seismic difference in performance here, let’s run with it.
Facing southpaws, Kris hit a healthy .286/.429/.393. The power is far from what he’s capable of, however, he more than made up for it with the frequency that he was able to get on base (24th against lefties in 2020). He achieved a 134 wRC+ and .374 wOBA against lefties.
It was righties, who he faced in over 76% of his plate appearances, that gave Bryant trouble. He limped through 2020 with a .184/.250/.340 slash against righties, producing a 58 wRC+ (34th worst last season against righties) and a .258 wOBA.
Kris Bryant has always excelled against lefties, tagging them for a 159 wRC+ over his career while righties have suppressed Bryant by 29%. So, there’s a case to be made that Bryant’s struggles were not exclusively against right-handed pitchers. This season’s wRC+ against left-handers was his worst since his rookie season. However one could also make a case that Bryant was impacted mentally by his struggles against righties. He started the season off strong against southpaws, only to regress closer to his performances against right-handers by the middle of the season.
What’s frustrating about this trend is that there’s virtually no obvious cause. Yes, Bryant’s always hit lefties better than righties, however, the displacement between his success against the two this season was unprecedented.
The few statistical anomalies that existed in 2020 may help to provide insight into how Kris Bryant struggled but come up short when trying to explain why he struggled or what was different about this season. There are two significant changes in his batted ball profile. One was a sudden propensity to hit to the opposite field much less. He wasn’t pulling the ball more, instead of hitting balls up the middle. The second was a dramatic decline in exit velocity against left-handed pitchers.
Kris’ tendency to hit the ball up the middle is a fascinating aspect of his 2020 campaign. Normally, across his career, he’s had success hitting to centre field, and 2020 in no expectation. However, after reducing the rate he went to the opposite field in 2020 by over 4% against righties, he still struggled to find success. That 4% against right-handers translated to a full season dip that came within one-tenth of his career-low. Yet he still failed to capitalize on the subdued opposite-field contact. His success in each field against both pitcher’s hands is consistent with that of his aggregate splits.
|wOBA (Pull)||wOBA (Center)||wOBA (Opposite Field)|
If that’s not concise, maybe this is: Bryant hit more favourable batted balls and produced a worse outcome.
The plot only thickens when turning our attention to the exit velocity of batted balls against each split. The only change here was Bryant’s exit velocity against left-handed pitchers. The subset of the league that Bryant was able to sustain some resemblance of his old self against. Expected batting average tells us he appeared to avoid allowing that change in launch speed to impact his results (at least as much as it should have).
|EV vs. RHP||LA vs. RHP||BA-xBA vs. RHP||EV vs. LHP||LA vs.LHP||BA-xBA vs. LHP|
What this indicates is that much of the little success Bryant did have in 2020 may not be reliable going forward. This is where things begin to look especially grim for the Cubs’ third baseman. By some measures, Kris Bryant overperformed his metrics this season.
Consider pitchers’ offerings against Bryant. We’ve already established that his batted ball profile is beginning to look less capable of producing runs. And it appears pitchers are doing their part to suppress Kris Bryant’s outcomes. They’ve masterfully pitched into his weaknesses.
Between 2019 and 2020, Kris Bryant was subjected to the largest changes in pitch percentage of his career. While his productivity against fastballs remained the same facing right-handed pitchers, he struggled to hit heat from lefties. Appropriately, he saw a career-high 62.7% fastball rate from lefties. That was up from 57.9% in 2019. Righties leveraged a similar strategy. While Kris batted .098 and slugged .171 against right-handed breaking pitches this year, he saw 40.7% breaking balls from right-handed pitchers up 8.4% from 2019. Bryant was strategically infiltrated at the chinks of his armour.
|Against RHP:||FB%||BA vs FB||SLG vs FB||BB%||BA vs BB||SLG vs BB|
|Against LHP:||FB%||BA vs FB||SLG vs FB||BB%||BA vs BB||SLG vs BB|
The significance of Kris Bryant’s future is only magnified this off-season. Playing for a Cubs team that appears on the brink of tearing it all up he’ll surely be (at least) dangled as collateral in an attempt to acquire future value. Especially considering he’s under contract for just one more season. And teams exploring buy low alternatives to fellow third baseman Nolan Arenado in the trade market will likely consider Bryant an excellent option.
Without showing any material change in his batted ball profile, it’s going to be difficult to project Bryant in a positive light going forward. Sure, he suffered injuries that could have played a role, however, such burdens should show up statistically, in his exit velocity, for example.
To avoid more turmoil (turmoil I’m willing to forecast) Kris Bryant will have to find a way to adjust and adapt. Pitchers know his weaknesses and they are going to continue to exploit them. However, a change of scenery could help offensively stimulate Bryant. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. In that case, all bets are off. Either way, only time will tell whether or not baseball’s former third-best prospect will rekindle his elite, previously annual, performance.
All data sourced from fangraphs.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.
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