When Kris Bryant exited Sunday’s game early with an illness, I tweeted this:
It's ridiculous to feel this way, but Bryant's absence makes me feel significantly less confident about Cubs ability to score in bunches
Let me explain why that should be ‘ridiculous,’ as I stated. No one player should drastically alter a team’s ability to score runs, certainly not a lineup that boasts Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Miguel Montero, Starlin Castro, and Dexter Fowler. And certainly not a player who has a total of 141 big-league plate appearances under his belt. But that’s just how valuable Bryant has been early on in his Cubs career.
No, it’s not as simple as his .289/.411/.482 line. There’s something much deeper going on here, and it stems from that middle number in his slash stats. The .411 OBP from Bryant, good for eighth in all of baseball, is rather impressive on it’s own. Especially when you consider that he’s just 23 and barely a month into his career. We look a little deeper and we see that Bryant’s 4.33 pitches per plate appearance is third in all of baseball, yet another impressive feat for such a young and inexperienced big-leaguer.
How important is Bryant’s ability to see so many pitches? Well, it’s not just a characteristic of Bryant, the Cubs as a team see 4.00 pitches per plate appearance, which is tops in all of baseball, with Bryant, Rizzo, Soler, Montero, Fowler, and Addison Russell all at that mark or above. Their patience came in handy in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. They were able to scratch across two runs off Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, but a one-run lead certainly didn’t feel secure, especially considering how up and down the Cubs ‘pen has been of late. But the patience of the team—Bryant saw 19 pitches on the day and Russell saw an impressive 25—helped push up Cole’s pitch count to 107 after six innings.
The two teams had just battled in a 12-inning game in which Clint Hurdle used seven relievers the day before and the Cubs patient ways forced the Pirates to go to their bullpen much earlier than they’d hoped. The North Siders bats took advantage, tacked on two more runs off Pittsburgh’s beleaguered relievers, and went on to win their sixth straight game.
But back to Bryant. His impressive OBP and pitches per plate appearance—along with his .193 ISO—make you feel a little more comfortable when you look at Bryant’s 29.8 percent strikeout rate. Yes, that’s a concerning number, but if he’s seeing pitches, getting on base, and hitting for power, striking out at such a high clip isn’t as much of an issue.
Part of the reason Bryant does strike out so much is due to his patience and the fact that he apparently has no fear to hit with two strikes. Well, it’s one thing to not be afraid to have two strikes when you’re at the plate, and it’s another to actually have success when you’re a strike away from heading back to the dugout.
|PLAYER||TWO-STRIKE COUNTS (TOTAL/PERCENT)||OBP AFTER TWO STRIKES|
An earlier version of the above table showed incorrect data and has since been updated.
The above table contains the 20 players who have faced the most two-strike, percentage-wise, in baseball. Using two-strike counts per plate appearance, Bryant has seen the third-most two-strike counts out of this group. And out of these 20 players, he has the second-highest OBP—tied with Carlos Santana—with two-strikes at .360 (the league average is .242), behind only Bryce Harper, who is a month and a half into what appears to be an absolutely brilliant season.
On a side note, we also see that two other Cubs, Soler and Starlin Castro, end up facing a lot of two-strike counts as well. While Castro is slightly above league average when it comes to getting on base with two strikes, Soler is well below. Yup, as we know, this team strikes out a lot. But back to the task at hand.
We know that Bryant is one of those on the Cubs who Ks quite often, and naturally that leads to him facing a lot of two-strike counts—I mean, you need three strikes to strikeout, so obviously a player who does that a lot will face many two-strike counts. But while Bryant does whiff a lot, he’s also getting on base at a much better clip than almost anyone in baseball when the opposition does get two strikes on him. Thus, we learn that it’s not a poor approach that’s leading to his high strike-out rate.
In fact, Bryant’s approach is impressively advanced. As previously noted, Bryant leads the league in pitches seen per plate appearance. Bryant’s not only seeing a ton of pitches in general, he appears to be swinging at the right pitches. He’s avoiding taking hacks at balls—his 27.5 percent O-Swing rate is 2.5 percentage points below the league average—while swinging at strikes at a 70.2 percent rate, nearly seven points above the league average. He’s also up there in another category: Full counts seen. He’s third in the league with 40 full counts, behind Harper and Santana, who have 35 and 20 more plate appearances than Bryant, respectively. Bryant’s also directly ahead of Joey Votto on this list, which may not mean anything, but just feels like a huge accomplishment in and of itself because of Votto's well-deserved reputation as one of the most patient and smartest hitters in the game. But does getting a lot of full counts even mean much? Sure, a player is seeing a lot of pitches and that helps the team, as I explained above, but does seeing a lot of full counts in a season actually mean good results for an individual?
The below list shows the top 30 individual seasons for full counts seen from 1950 on:
|PLAYER||YEAR||FULL COUNTS SEEN||TAv|
That’s certainly an odd mix of names, and it’s a little surprising that neither Rickey Henderson’s nor Tony Gwynn’s names pops up, and we only see Frank Thomas once. So what we can take away is that being an extremely patient hitter doesn’t automatically mean you’ll see a lot of full counts, at least not a record-breaking amount*. But when we look at the TAv from each of the 30 seasons, even considering the so-so careers of the likes of Jack Cust or Daric Barton, none of these players had a bad year when they saw a large number of full counts. In fact, many had some pretty special seasons.
*Although, 25 of the 30 names from this list are from the turn of the century on and the earliest season is 1991. Clearly we're seeing something related to this era and greater willingness of hitters to take pitches and get to a full count.
If we focus in on the players who are 26 or younger—which, as we know, Bryant is—in the above list, we see a much more impressive group of Hanley Ramirez in 2008, Adam Dunn in 2002 and 2004, Barton in 2010, Thomas in 1991, Jim Thome in 1997, and Mike Trout in 2014. Outside of Barton, who could always take a walk, but had little power and zero positional flexibility—two things we can’t say about Bryant—that’s a very impressive list.
While the league has gotten on base at a .445 clip when facing a full count, Bryant tops that with a crazy .550. If he gets to 3-2, he’s got a pretty darn good chance of getting to first. And just to clarify, if Bryant were to play 150 games, which is perfectly reasonable assuming health, and averaged the same amount of full counts as he has thus far in the season, he’d blow past Bobby Abreu’s record of 160, with 188 full counts seen.
There’s no denying that Bryant has been impressive at the plate in his 32 games in the bigs. He’s been patient, he’s taken his walks, and he’s starting to hit for the power we all expected—and if you’ve seen his home runs, it’s amazing how easy he makes it look to hit the ball 400-plus feet. And while he hasn’t hit a home run to the opposite field just yet, he’s hit a few extra-base hits to right—again, with apparent ease. One writer declared Bryant had done something amazing with one of those opposite field hits, and the other was equally remarkable.
In the triple seen above, the Cubs broadcasters are in awe at how the ball just kept carrying and traveled much farther than they realized it would. Then later we learned that while he’s never going to steal bases with the likes of Dee Gordon or Lorenzo Cain, his top speed on that play—though not his acceleration—is right up there with that duo.
Bryant hustles, he’s faster than we realize, he’s got power to all fields, he can hit with two strikes, his patience could set records, and his teammates love him. To top it off, Bryant is 6-foot-5 and in great shape, proving there’s nothing about him that’s not impressive. And I’m pretty sure he never stops smiling.
His defense is still a question—though he’s hardly been a disaster as many expected, hanging right around league average according to most advanced stats—and we’re aware of his swing-and miss habits, but both have been overshadowed by all the things he does so well. No, Kris Bryant isn’t perfect, but sometimes it does seem that way.
Thanks to the always helpful Rob McQuown with assistance on researching this topic.