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May 30, 2013

Dissecting the Draft

Examining Kris Bryant

by Nick J. Faleris

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Since we first set out talent tiers for players in consideration for selection with the seventh overall pick in the draft, some significant events have affected the stock of two of our potential targets. We have also seen reporting that this draft class contains a unanimous “top 3”—a triumvirate that does not match up with our tiering. We’ll quickly address the shakeup in the tiers before devoting the bulk of this entry to a thorough examination of Kris Bryant—the “unanimous elite talent” that didn’t make the cut for our Tier One grouping.

Tiering Updates
There are two players whose tiering requires re-examination due to recent events. Below is a summary of each, including the events that have transpired and the impact on the player’s value.

Player: Sean Manaea, LHP, Indiana St. University
Event: Continues to struggle with health (including his ankle, hip and shoulder), quality of stuff.
Effect: Many evaluators familiar with Manaea prior to his dominant stint on the Cape have yet to see the player described to them by their East Coast brethren. While injuries this spring have limited his availability and ability, he has to show the consistent ability to throw his fastball and secondaries at a high level. The ceiling remains high, but there is too much risk at this point for him to remain in serious consideration for the seventh overall pick in the draft. He doesn’t fit the typical profile of someone willing to cut an under-slot deal, so he’s out of Tier Three as well. He will be considered as a second-rounder, should he be available at pick 45.

Player: Ryan Boldt, OF, Red Wing HS (Red Wing, MN)
Event: Torn meniscus; out of action through June.
Effect: Boldt remains one of the best center-field prospects in the draft class, but the injury (as well as his late-starting high school season) requires us to make an appraisal based primarily on last year’s looks and limited workouts last offseason. The injury itself doesn’t appear to be a long-term concern, but it does somewhat increase the drafting organization’s leverage. He remains in Tier Three for now, but he’s probably a better acquisition fit as an over-allotment signing in the second round than a money-saver in the top 10 overall. Provided we have satisfactory options once we’ve completed our Tier Two review, we are likely to cross Boldt off as a potential first-round target.

Entering today’s analysis, this is where our tier currently stand:

Tier One
1. Jonathan Gray, RHP, Oklahoma University | Scouting Report
2. Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford University | Scouting Report
3. Clint Frazier, OF, Loganvilee HS (Loganville, GA) | Scouting Report

Tier Two (Ranked)
1. Kohl Stewart, RHP, St. Pius X (Houston, TX)
2. Trey Ball, LHP, New Castle HS (New Castle, IN) | Scouting Report (LHP)

Tier Two (Unranked—alphabetical)
1. Kris Bryant, 3B, University of San Diego | Scouting Report
2. JP Crawford, SS, Lakewood HS (Lakewood, CA)
3. Jon Denney, C, Yukon HS (Yukon, OK)
4. Reese McGuire, C, Kentwood HS (Covington, WA)
5. Braden Shipley, RHP, University of Nevada
6. Dominic Smith, 1B/OF, Serra HS (Los Angeles, CA)
7. Ryne Stanek, RHP, University of Arkansas

Tier Three
1. Ryan Boldt, OF, Red Wing HS (Red Wing, MN)

Kris Bryant—Elite or No?
Much of the draft-related electronic ink spilled over the past few weeks has centered on a reported consensus that the 2013 draft class has seen three players emerge as the clear top three talents—Mark Appel, Jonathan Gray, and Kris Bryant. While Appel and Gray both fit in as elite talents in our tiers, Bryant ranks as a Tier Two target. It should be noted that no one expects Bryant to be available when we make our selection at seventh overall (myself included), so most of what we cover today is irrelevant to our actual decision-making come draft day. Still, I thought it important to address the discrepancy between my tiering and the widely reported “unanimous top three.” Plus, this an interesting topic for examination in its own right, and will hopefully spark your further interest in breaking down draft prospects from multiple angles.

So what is our measuring stick for “elite” or Tier One talent? For my money, a selection at the top of the draft—one requiring over $4 million of upfront investment—needs to satisfy a three-pronged test: (1) impactful upside, (2) limited comparative risk, and (3) satisfactory makeup. The first prong centers on raw tool grades and the potential for the player to outdistance the raw grades. The third prong requires an examination of work ethic, on-field demeanor, and potential for off-field issues, but is focused primarily on large red flags. In other words, we are concerned with aspects of a player’s personality that could have the potential to make him ill-suited to successfully navigate the mental rigors of professional baseball. The second prong is often the trickiest, and it is the prong we are most concerned with when examining Bryant. By “comparative,” I mean risk compared to upside. So the higher the upside of the player in question, the more risk we can tolerate in the profile.

Assessing Bryant as a Tier One Talent
It’s easy to love Bryant. He’s a college bat coming off a loud statistical spring. He already has a pro body with some room to get even stronger. Over the past year, he has made strides in the weak areas of his game—mostly improvements in his defense and diminution in the sum of his empty at-bats. He’s a corner guy, but probably not limited to first base. He has a great store of one of the most rapidly diminishing resources at the pro ranks: raw power. Additionally, Bryant scores well in the makeup department, and the adjustments he has made over the past two seasons in particular demonstrate his willingness to put in required time to improve his game.

What’s not to love? Bryant easily satisfies prong one and prong three of our “elite” test. All that remains is an examination of the associated risks in his profile, and to make a determination as to how those risks might impact his ability to reach his ceiling. Concerns surrounding Bryant revolve around two primary issues: (1) he has long been viewed as a player likely to be forced off of third base, knocking down his defensive value, and (2) as a long-limbed power bat with a propensity to groove his swing, there have always been questions as to how much his raw power will ultimately play at the highest levels.

Defense is the easiest question to address. Bryant has acquitted himself well in limited action in right field, making the potential shift off of third base not nearly as frightening as it was anticipated to be some 18 months ago. As a fringe-average to average defender in the nine-spot, Bryant would provide more value than he otherwise would at first base, and there is additional room for his bat to fall short of its ceiling without torpedoing his overall value. In short, Bryant’s improvements have made this risk a non-issue from a draft value standpoint.

The only chief concern, then, is his future ability to implement his immense raw power. From a scouting perspective, Bryant has widened his base and simplified his barrel delivery, which has helped him to cut down on empty at-bats and improved his contact rate. Further, the fact that he has launched 31 home runs so far this spring—more than a good number of entire Division I teams—would seem to greatly alleviate concerns in this area, and on the surface it does.

But if we are to group Bryant as a truly elite player—a player worthy of an up-front investment of over $4 million—we need to be as certain as possible that his carrying tool (power) will be an impact tool at the next level by looking beyond a raw collegiate stat line. To me, this closer look, reveals evidence that Bryant isn’t quite as safe an investment as many have thus far indicated.

Before we take the final plunge into this analysis, I want to be clear that none of the below is intended to imply that Bryant is likely to fail, or even that he is unworthy of top-five overall consideration. The point of this exercise is to flesh out the decision-making process and, specifically, the questions as to whether Bryant should be considered an elite talent.

Stat Analysis—Examining Power and Triple-Slash
In performing my diligence on Bryant’s spring, two subsections of his production caused me concern as they relate to homers and general offensive production: (1) his performance against relief pitching versus starting pitching, and (2) his performance against top arms. We should point out that the breakdowns discussed below represent small sample sizes and shouldn’t be looked upon to provide evidence of likely trends in future performance. However, the purpose of running statistical due diligence on college players is not to predict future performance, but rather to note any circumstantial evidence that might dovetail with concerns raised on the scouting side (that Bryant's raw power won’t play at an elite level against stronger competition).

Here are a few subsets of Bryant’s performance this spring broken down into two tables. We are looking at total performance and then subsets of performance against starting pitchers, against relief pitchers, during midweek action (weaker subset of pitchers than weekend), and against draft-eligible arms projected to go in the top 10 rounds (or for underclassmen, that would project to the top three rounds were they eligible). Please note these totals were compiled through review of game logs and may not perfectly match the aggregate statistics posted on the University of San Diego website.

Performance Against Starting Pitchers and Relievers

 

PA

AB

HR

BA

OBP

SLG

BB

SO

BB/PA

SO/PA

SO/BB

Total

279

214

31

.336

.491

.855

59

39

.211

.140

.661

vs SP

166

125

15

.296

.470

.736

38

21

.229

.127

.553

vs RP

109

85

16

.388

.523

1.035

21

16

.193

.147

.762

Of Bryant’s 279 plate appearances this spring, 39% of them came against pitchers throwing in relief, and 61% against starters. Of his 31 homers, however, 16 (or 52%) came against relievers, with 15 (or 48%) coming against starters. We also see a dramatic delta between his triple-slash line against starters (.296/.470/.736) versus relievers (.388/.523/1.035). His strikeout and walk rates remain fairly uniform and in line with his rates on the season.

Over a small sample, Bryant could be slightly lucky or unlucky against starters or relievers, and while we don’t have a large enough pool of data to make a determination, we can look at other circumstantial evidence to see if there are further indicators of troubling areas. With regards to the above table, we are presented with the possibility that Bryant’s stats are buoyed by his plate appearances against lesser relief arms, as opposed to starters.

Performance Against Midweek Arms and Top Arms

 

PA

AB

HR

BA

OBP

SLG

BB

SO

BB/PA

SO/PA

SO/BB

Total

279

214

31

.336

.491

.855

59

39

.211

.140

.661

Midweek

61

52

10

.327

.426

.942

9

6

.148

.098

.667

Rd 1-10

38

30

3

.300

.447

.633

8

8

.211

.211

1.00

College teams tend to use their best arms as weekend starters. Additionally, college teams tend to fill midweek innings with the second rung of arms on the staff, including underclassmen and pitchers otherwise not relied upon for the weekend series. Bryant has a disproportionate number of homers against these second-rung arms—32% of them over just 22% his plate appearances—versus those he faced on the weekend. He totaled 38 plate appearances against arms projected to go out in the first 10 rounds of the draft (or first three rounds for underclassmen were they eligible this year) and hit three homers—10% of his homers over 14% of his plate appearances.

Again, while not definitive, the circumstantial evidence seems to indicate his home-run totals could partially be a result of his ability to take advantage of lesser pitching at the collegiate ranks. Additionally, we see his strikeout rates higher and his batting average and slugging lower versus the top arms, compared to both midweek arms and his season averages.

Playing fast and loose with the stats, taking his plate appearances versus starting pitchers and extending those rates to his full 279 plate appearances would net him around 24 homers, which would still be tops at the Division I ranks. But the severe drop off in triple-slash rates is troubling, even in a small sampling. Remember, our identified risk is that Bryant will have trouble tapping into his raw power due to implementation issues.

Looking at Plate Discipline and Contact Rate
Without question, it is a testament to Bryant that his walks-per-plate appearance and strikeout-per-plate appearance rates stay relatively uniform (19% to 22% and 12% to 14%, respectively) across almost every subsection I run (the lone hiccups are a drop to 14% in BB/PA rate when singling out plate appearances against #2 weekend arms and a jump to 21% in SO/PA against the “top arms”). The loose narrative here is that Bryant keeps a relatively controlled approach across various classifications of competition, which bodes well for his jump to the pros.

History tells us that as a player progresses from the low minors to the majors, we should generally expect walk rates to decrease and strikeout rates to increase. The idea is that more advanced pitchers tend to have better command of higher-quality stuff. At the major-league level, I set 20% as a loose upper limit for strikeout rate and 10% as a loose target for walk rate. Accordingly, we look for collegiate rates to offer enough cushion so that as these rates rise or fall against better competition, there is a decent chance to meet or surpass the above targets.

As noted above, Bryant’s walk rates across the various subsets sit 19% to 22%, while his strikeout rates sit 12% to 14%. In each case, he looks to be in good shape to take on some negative movement as he faces better arms while still meeting or exceeding our goal of a 10% or better walk rate and 20% or better strikeout rate at the major-league level. However, because Bryant is such a huge homerun threat, and because he is the biggest bat in the San Diego lineup by a fair amount, due diligence requires we pry into the walk rate a little further, parsing intentional walks.

Of Bryant’s 59 walks on the season (by my tally), 21 were intentional. If we remove those from his walk totals, his effective walk rate drops from 21.1% on the season to 14.7%. This is not a red flag, but we must remember that at least a small portion of the remaining 38 walks came when the opposition did not pitch Bryant particularly close, for fear of him punishing mistakes.

As a final notation, in limited action with Team USA last summer (17 games and 68 plate appearances), Bryant posted BB/PA and SO/PA rates of 11.8% and 25%, respectively. While again a small sample size, we have to note the import of stats accrued while Bryant was using wood bats, and we have to at least acknowledge that (i) an 11.8% BB/PA rate is closer to his 14.7% effective BB/PA rate this spring than the 21.1% BB/PA including his intentional walks, and (ii) his a 25% SO/PA rate is closer to his 21.1% SO/PA against “top arms” than the cumulative 14% SO/PA rate this spring.

What does it all mean?
Again, there is nothing in the above stats that should scare anyone off of Bryant as a high-quality draft selection. The point of running diligence in this manner is solely to try to gain perspective stats accrued this year. Bryant is one of the top talents in the draft class, and is arguably the best power prospect eligible for selection. Should he happen to be available when the time comes for us to make our shadow draft selection at seventh overall, he will undoubtedly get strong consideration. Were Bryant able to produce more value outside of his bat, his power upside would easily be enough to propel him to Tier One status. But I have enough concerns as to risks in his offensive profile that, as an offensive-minded corner player, he simply does not rate as a Tier One talent for me.

As noted in his scouting report, Bryant grades out at an Adjusted OFP of 55/61, indicating good probability, but slightly more risk and less upside than I would personally look for in a truly elite draft target. For purposes of our shadow draft, he slots in right behind Trey Ball in AOFP, but, for all intents and purposes, is on par with both Ball and Stewart. Should all three be available, factors outside of straight grades would determine our ultimate selection, with major-league ETA likely a large component of the equation. (Bryant could be ready at some point next year, as opposed to Stewart’s and Ball’s projected 2017 arrival.)

Looking Ahead
Our next installments will tackle the remaining targets for our first-round selection. Specifically, we’ll compare our two remaining collegiate arms (Stanek and Shipley), the prep catchers (McGuire and Denney), and the remaining prep position players (Smith, Crawford, and Ball as an outfielder). 

Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nick's other articles. You can contact Nick by clicking here

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