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Cubs Superstar Kris Bryant Keeps Getting Better

Chicago Cubs superstar third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant is already a two-time MLB All-Star and a National League MVP, but the best is still yet to come for the 26-year-old.

Many outsiders considered Bryant’s 2017 season to be a down year. He wasn’t voted to the all-star team for the first time in his career, and his 73 runs batted in was the lowest mark of his career for a single-season. A deep dive into more numbers tells us that Bryant’s 2017 was actually another elite season for Bryant, and that the numbers so far this year also suggest that Bryant’s 2018 will be even better.

Last season, Bryant posted career-best marks in batting average, on-base percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). He even increased his walk rate while chopping down his strikeout rate, something Bryant is doing even better at once again this season:

YearStrikeout %
201530.6%
201622.0%
201719.2%
201815.6%

Bryant’s 30.6% strikeout rate during his rookie season in 2015 lead to 199 strikeouts in 559 at-bats, meaning that he led the National League in strikeouts. Only Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles whiffed more times than Bryant in 2015, as Davis was the only player in baseball that year to strikeout 200+ times with 208 punch outs.

What’s more remarkable about Bryant cutting down his strikeouts at such an impressive rate is how unlikely it was when you look back. He actually whiffed more in the second half of 2015 than the first half, and his walk rate even took a bit of a nosedive. What kept people optimistic about Bryant potentially cutting down his strikeouts is that he showed signs of being a player who can hit for average while still striking out a considerable amount at the Triple-A level. Now, he’s just an all-around elite hitter.

Only Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman has a higher OPS than Bryant’s .999 mark in the National League this season, and Bryant is coming off a week where he slashed .438/.625/.1.125 with 3 home runs and 6 runs batted in. The second homer Bryant hit last week off of Marlins pitcher Wei-Yin Chen gave him 100 home runs for his career, meaning that it took Bryant 487 games to reach that plateau. It took Cubs legends like Ernie Banks (500 games) and Ron Santo (708 games) more time to reach 100 homers themselves (h/t Christopher Kamka).

Bryant is also barreling up every ball he sees this season, with a 42.0% hard contact rate. While his 12 barrels on the season per Statcast isn’t compared to J.D. Martinez‘ 25 or Mookie Betts‘ 24, his 12.0% barrel rate is the best single-season mark of his career, and his average exit velocity of exactly 89.0 miles per hour is right on par with his career trends to this date.

A couple of more things to look at when it comes to evaluating Bryant’s amazing performance that will likely lead to his third all-star game selection – when the ball is being thrown into the strike zone by opposing pitchers, it’s not fooling Bryant at all. He’s made contact of 89.9% of pitches that have been thrown in the zone, and his whiff percentage is all the way down to 19.1%, which are both career bests for Bryant.

The discipline at the plate is perhaps the biggest change Bryant has made since his debut in April 2015. So far in 2018, Bryant has only swung at 27.3% of pitches outside the strike zone, and his swinging strike rate is down to a remarkable 7.6%. Every year of Bryant’s career has featured a swinging strike rate of 10% or greater so far, but the progression Bryant has made as a player will tell you that decline in swinging strike rate and almost every other metric mentioned here is very real.

Per the wRC+ metric, Bryant has a wRC+ of 168, meaning that this season, Bryant has created 68% more runs than the average MLB player. wRC+ ranks Bryant as the 8th best player in baseball this season alone, as he and Francisco Lindor have the same wRC+. Only Tommy Pham, Odubel Herrera, Freddie Freeman, Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, Mike Trout, and Mookie Betts are the qualified hitters with a better wRC+.

Bryant’s defense has also remained a plus despite 5 fielding errors at third base this season. He handled some work at first base earlier this season when Anthony Rizzo was sidelined earlier this season with a back injury, and has played a fair share of right field recently due to Jason Heyward being out indefinitely with a concussion. Bryant has 2 defensive runs saved between the third base and the outfield so far this season, and manager Joe Maddon can insert Bryant anywhere into his lineup and get the same consistent success from the Las Vegas native.

The bottom line is Bryant’s 2018 season will put him back at the all-star game in July barring injury. It will also put him into the conversation to win his second National League MVP award, something only Banks has accomplished in Cubs history when he won the honors in 1958 and 1959.

*All statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs, Statcast & Baseball-Reference. All statistics present in this article are accurate as of May 14, 2018.*

Photo:Chicago Tribune
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