I've been tasked with a doozy this week: choose between Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado. Both are sure-fire first-round picks, and for both you could make a valid argument to draft either one as high as no. 3 overall. Alas, it seems as if I may be splitting the finest of hairs by engaging in this exercise. Yet Bryant's and Arenado's similar profiles have produced markedly different results — different enough that a deep dive might unearth a market inefficiency to which the fantasy community has turned a blind eye.
Bryant and Arenado both recorded 650-plus plate appearances each the last two years. One outperformed the other in both seasons. I feel like I need to mention this up front because I'm guessing the common reader, on a hunch, would guess the other way. Advantage: Arenado
This one's kind of tough. Arenado's superior contact skills help mitigate issues with his approach and give him a higher BABIP floor, whereas Bryant's batted ball skills kind of do the inverse, mitigating issues with his contact skills and giving him the higher BABIP ceiling. We're talking about two sides of same coin — a coin that has produced a .285 average on one side (Arenado) and a .284 on the other. It's almost impossible to differentiate. Bryant's improving strikeout rate (K%) and (possibly) suppressed BABIP would give him the slightest edge over Arenado, whose consistent BABIP gives us a pretty tight window in which to project him. Advantage: Bryant, barely
As a tiebreaker, Bryant's locked-in double-digit walk rate (BB%) allows him more run-scoring opportunities as part of arguably the game's best offense. Arenado deserves praise, though; his lackluster BB% almost doubled as he became more selective. Advantage: Bryant
The two went punch for punch in runs scored in 2015 and 2016 despite wide rifts in their OBPs. The Rockies are no slouches, and after this offseason, their offense could wind up being one of the game's best in 2017. Intuitively, I want to give the edge to the better OBP, but I can't comfortably award a clear-cut advantage to anyone. I will, though, for you. Advantage: Bryant, barely
Runs Batted In
It helps hitting behind Charlie Blackmon and DJ Lemahieu. Arenado splits time between batting third and clean-up in his lineup; Bryant typically bats second or third. The difference helps explain Arenado's distinct advantage in the RBI category. It's remarkable, actually. But I don't expect the divide to be quite as big in 2017. Advantage: Arenado
Okay, this part is a big deal. These guys have huge game power—Bryant more so, perhaps, from what ancient scouting scriptures once foretold. Last year, the two were almost identical in terms of power. Yet the extra opportunities Arenado affords himself—he puts the into fair territory almost 10 percent more often than Bryant does—creates much more potential to do significant damage. Some quick arithmetic tells us that holding Bryant's and Arenado's fly-ball rate and HR:FB equivalent—they basically are—would yield Arenado as many as four or five additional home runs across a full season. That might be enough to make up for all his slight deficiencies elsewhere. Advantage: Arenado
…Except stolen bases. Arenado's thick legs — again, as the scouts once foretold — have predictably limited Arenado's baserunning proficiency. Bryant, on the other hand, has proven himself to be one of the game's best baserunners despite being as tall and strong as a literal beanstalk. Even if double-digit steals are already behind him, he's probably still good for at least half a dozen. Given the surplus of power and scarcity of speed, Bryant's advantage here probably erases all the progress Arenado made in the home run category. Advantage: Bryant
The hairs truly being split here are those of home runs, stolen bases and RBI — two of which the advantage belongs to Arenado. Yet it's hard to believe that Bryant will continue to lag behind with very similar skills and similarly fantastic teammates batting in front of and behind him. If one were to infer the momentum of the status quo, Arenado's extra five home runs and 25 RBI trump Bryant's extra half-dozen steals. Counting stats, though, are typically outside the hitter's control. And the expectation that Bryant's batting average rebounds, alongside improved plate discipline, makes him a worthy candidate to finally overcome Arenado in 2017. I would never blame anyone for drafting Arenado over Bryant—they both are absurdly good and have demonstrated utmost reliability—but Bryant still offers the tempting prospect of a slightly higher ceiling.
And the winner is… Kris Bryant.
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