For some of you Cubs fans out there, this year's World Series victory might still seem a little bit unreal. After decades of wandering in the wilderness, the Northsiders finally made it to the Promised Land. At the victory parade, it seemed like everyone who had ever heard of the Cubs showed up for the party. It was a reverie of mythological proportions.
Now that most of the customary post-Series hyperbole is out of the way, here's a bit more for you: the young man playing third base could end up becoming one of the best ever at his position. Let's look at the case for this 24 year-old phenom.
Kris Bryant has only two MLB seasons under his belt after being drafted 2nd overall in 2013, but the Las Vegas native has already demonstrated that the odds may be in his favor. The Cubs ran him out on the field last year, when he racked up 650 plate appearances in his 151 games. There was no "getting one's feet wet" for Bryant; it was sink or swim, right from the start. The 23 year-old rookie put up numbers that any MLB vet would be proud to have: he batted .275 with 26 homers, 99 RBI, 31 doubles and 13 steals, taking home NL Rookie Of The Year honors on top of his All-Star selection. He even garnered MVP consideration, finishing 11th in the voting. Not too shabby for a first-year player.
This year, Bryant picked up where he left off. He improved on his contact rates, swatting 176 base hits in all, while cutting his strikeouts by 45 (154, down from 199 in 2015) and maintaining his walk rates (75 in 2016, 77 in 2015). He crushed 39 homers and drove in 102 runs while scoring a league-leading 121 runs in addition. He was on base a grand total of 269 times this season, good for fourth in the league. Bryant, of course, picked up a second All-Star selection, and will likely finish highly in the MVP voting.
Those are some very basic, albeit very impressive, statistics. They tell a small part of the story. There is a lot more to it than homers and RBI.
Wrigley can be a nightmare for any pitcher, especially on windy days, and most days in Chicago are windy days. That's what we're led to believe, after all; it's The Windy City, for crying out loud. Still, since 2010, Wrigley has ranked 11th among the 30 ML ballparks in terms of run scoring, as total offense averaged five runs above the mean. It's more to the point to say that hitters take advantage of the wind when it does blow out, because it may change direction and speed during the game or from moment to moment. Chris Constancio of The Hardball Times wrote on the "wind factor" way back in 2007, in a far more detailed article.
Either way, it didn't matter an awful lot to Bryant: 17 HR at Wrigley, 22 in away games. He actually hit better in away games, overall, with a .308 BA and .980 OPS as opposed to a .275 average and .895 OPS at home. In his rookie season, his numbers were skewed dramatically toward home (.311 BA, 1.037 OPS home; .243 BA, .693 OPS away), but much of this could be attributed to making adjustments and being surrounded by a WS-caliber team.
Bryant is a fly-ball hitter in a fly-ball-friendly park; 14.7% of the fly balls he hit went over the wall, and 44% of his hits went for extra bases. He cut down his K percentage by 8.6% (30.6% in 2015, 22.0% in 2016) and virtually matched his walks total from 2015. His ISO was .262, which is especially notable since Bryant maintains a fairly high BA overall. Bryant showed more patience at the plate, though it didn't lead to more walks and led to more ABs watching strike three go by. However, if he continues to show such patience it will likely lead to more walks and better selectivity at the plate. His oWAR was 6.6, good for first in the NL and fourth in the Majors. In terms of his bat alone, Bryant managed to finish in the top ten in the NL for OPS, runs scored (1st), hits, total bases, HR, RBI, runs created, XBH and AB per HR, among others.
In the field is where Bryant has room to grow the most. Having played only 107 games at the hot corner in 2016 (splitting the rest of his appearances between the OF and DH), he finished 6th in fielding percentage among those who played 100 or more games at the position. In 2066 1/3 innings at third, Bryant has made only 29 errors while handling 604 total chances. His range factor and fielding position have hovered around league average, though it doesn't help that he's been bouncing between third and left; the Cubs would be wise to keep him at third, if for no other reason than to help him establish a routine both offensively and defensively.
Bryant's quickness and athleticism work to his advantage, though at 6"5', 230, he may have to move from the corner eventually. As it appears now, his skill set and natural ability should keep him at third base for years to come.
Perhaps the most telling stat is his WAR: to this point in his very young career, Bryant has a 13.6 career WAR. Here's where that matters.
The average HOF third baseman scored a 67.5 career WAR, while their seven best seasons (part of the JAWS calculation) come out at 42.7 WAR. Bryant is already 20% of the way there, in terms of career WAR totals.
The players most offensively similar to him through Age 24 include such greats as Ralph Kiner, Jim Thome, Chipper Jones and Rocky Colavito. Let's assume for a moment that Bryant settles into a level of production just below All-Star level: that would put his WAR per season somewhere between 3-4, roughly. If he can stay healthy and play at least another ten seasons, that would put his career WAR between 46-56 and under the average for current HOF third baseman. That is if he is only above average over those ten years, which is very unlikely.
From all appearances thus far, that's probably a very conservative estimate. Over 162 games, he currently averages 34 HR, 106 RBI, 110 runs scored, 175 hits and a .900 OPS. Considering that he plays at Wrigley for half of his games, that's probably pretty accurate for his future estimates. However, it's likely that he's still 3-4 years away from his peak seasons. Think about that, for a moment: his 2016 performance might have been only a taste of what is to come.
What all this means is that Bryant has a lot going for him: age, skill, a great team, and a good hitter's park. He's already considered among the best third basemen in his league, and has the ability to remain so for a long time. From all appearances, all he has to do is stay healthy and keep taking the field, and he will likely find the Hall calling when it's all over.