The billboard arrived before the phenom it touted, teasing Cubs fans with the prospect of a prospect whose prospects seemed too good to be true. Kris Bryant was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a slugger with great makeup and a smile that could give even Daniel Murphy and Lance Berkman the vapors.
The kid’s reputation preceded him all right, helped in no small part by the verbal sparring over the propriety of the Cubs’ decision to keep him in the minors until such time as they could earn another year of club control over his salary. While I don’t buy for a second the idea that the Cubs held Bryant back primarily to work on his defense, I still support the decision they made, artificial suppression and all. Talk of labor law and good faith efforts aside, the Cubs did what they felt was best for the future of the team and they did so by the letter of the collectively bargained law.
One could argue that it almost bit them in the ass by making them the visiting team in the Wild Card game in Pittsburgh this season, but I’m not a fan of arguing hypotheticals. The Cubs were, after all, 5-3 in the 8 games prior to Bryant’s arrival. Besides, they ended up beating the Pirates and the Cardinals en route to an NLCS berth. But enough dredging up obsolete issues, I’m here to talk about Bryant’s season.
And, boy howdy, what a rookie season it was. The defeatists among us are many and varied, to the extent that I think every Cubs fan has at least the ghost of a nagging Negative Nelly haunting their thoughts. To that end, Kris Bryant was the young priest assigned to perform a mass exorcism. With fellow newly-ordained clergymen like Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, Bryant proved that there’s not curse preventing Cubs rookies from excelling. Now I guess we just have to hold our breath when it comes to the Sophomore Slump.
But here’s the thing about Bryant: he wasn’t just a really good rookie relative to the Cubs this season or even in the last few years for the team. He was one of the best rookies ever. Like, in baseball history. To wit, here’s a snippet from a piece I wrote for Today’s Knuckleball that lays out exactly how great his 2015 campaign was:
Bryant would join the Cubs 12 days after the season opener (he missed eight games), and manage just a .264/.411/.333 (.744 OPS) slash line with no home runs over his first 20 games. But…but…we were told he was here to hit homers! He then belted 26 home runs and drove in 86 runs over his next 131 games. His weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) was 136, or 36 percent better than the average hitter, in that time.
That’s really good in a vacuum, but it’s even more impressive when you consider that those totals include a July in which Bryant hit only .168/.270/.368 (.638 OPS) with a wRC+ of 73, which means he was roughly 27 percent worse than an average hitter.
Bryant’s 26 homers and 99 RBI are both best all-time among Cubs rookies, as is his 6.5 WAR total (determined by FanGraphs).
Looking beyond Chicago, Bryant’s rookie WAR total places him fourth out of all 1,641 qualified rookie seasons since 1980. In other words, he had a better campaign than 99.76 percent of all rookies in the last 35 years. Over that period, only 12 other rookies have met or exceeded 5.2 fWAR and only five others — Ichiro Suzuki (6.0), Nomar Garciaparra (6.4), Albert Pujols (7.2), Mike Piazza (7.4), and Mike Trout (10.3) — have posted six or more wins above replacement.
What if we include the entire history of professional baseball as we know it?
Basically, over 26,000 rookies have made it to the Show since 1871, and Bryant just put up the 14th-best rookie season ever in WAR terms. His season was better than 99.95 percent of the players who’ve ever laced ’em up. It’s pretty heady stuff to be listed among the likes of Joe Jackson, Ted Williams, and Carlton Fisk (not to mention Benny Kauff and Dutch Zwilling).
Oh, the other thing? Bryant did all this while also being asked to man all three outfield positions from time to time, not to mention a bit of time at first. That may not sound like much on the surface, it’s pretty flippin’ impressive when you think about what that kind of versatility means in a player who’s that talented. Granted, Bryant doesn’t (yet) have the defensive prowess of other guys who routinely play all over the diamond, but none of those guys have him incredible offensive skillset either. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll see him continue this jack-of-all-tradesmanship, but I’m not grading the future.
In addition to the defensive growing pains — most notably the instances in which Bryant would mishandle a grounder and then rush a throw to Rizzo that made you think he was trying to take his first baseman’s head off, or maybe Chuck Knoblauch a sportscaster’s mom — I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend at least a little time on the blemishes in Bryant’s game at the plate.
The chief concern is contact rate, where Bryant’s 66.3% lagged 12.3 points below the MLB average. His swinging strike percentage of 16.5% was about 65% higher than the league average of 9.9%. It’s more than just a flaw of youth though, as the rookie averages for those stats were 76% and 11.4%, respectively. But I’ll take that all day long knowing that Bryant still has not only room to improve, but the ability and desire to make it happen. Pretty scary to think what he could do if he cuts the strikeouts down even a little bit.
It might seems hypocritical to give the grade you see below after just shining a spotlight on his blemishes, but there’s no denying the impact Bryant had on the Cubs and their fans. To borrow another pair of lines from myself, “He has already succeeded in mainlining a potent mix of adrenaline and hope straight into the median cubital of a dopesick fanbase jonesing far too long for a winner. Bryant scratched a seven-year itch, if you will.” And for that, he receives the highest of marks.
Final Grade: A+