Position by Position: Third Base

(USATSI)

Lets be real for a second. The Cubs got lucky in the 2013 Amateur Draft. They were in great position with the second overall pick, as they were coming off an abysmal season in which they lost over a hundred games. With their selection in the first round, the Astros picked Mark Appel, a consensus first overall pick (he was drafted by the Astros in the first round in 2012 but didn’t sign) which left the Cubs with a highly touted young prospect from Las Vegas. It might be one of the best second overall picks in recent memory.

Bryant already has the 17th highest bWAR of all second round picks in the history of the draft. He also has a higher bWAR than anyone selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, the year before he was drafted. Only José Fernández has a higher bWAR among 2011 first rounders. In Bryant, they didn’t just get a well-rounded player who was capable of “30-plus HR potential; occasional All-Star” as Bleacher Report described him. The Cubs were about to get a Rookie of the Year winner and MVP, an honor just three other players (Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Howard, Cal Ripken Jr.) had earned in back-to-back years.

Bryant impressed at every level in the minors and has had tremendous success in his time in the majors. In Rookie Ball he hit .364 in 20 games. In High-A he hit .333. In Double-A in 2014 Bryant hit .355 in 68 games. In Triple-A Iowa in 2015 he hit .321. He did all that while hitting 61 home runs and did not have a wRC+ (an overall offensive metric where 100 is league average, meaning Byrant was at least 61% better than the average) less than 161 at any level (except for brief two game stint in 2013 Rookie Ball) with excellent SLG and OBP to match.

Image result for kris bryant world series
(Fansided)

Still, minor league success, even at the level Bryant played at, does not ensure major league success. Luckily for Bryant and Cubs fans everywhere, when he arrived in The Show in April of 2015, he dominated. While he had a deceptively mediocre slashline of .275/.369/.488, Bryant was worth an excellent 6.6 fWAR and had a 136 wRC+. He ended up playing 151 games, recorded 650 plate appearances, hit 26 home runs, stole 13 bases, and drove in 99 runs. His impressive 2015 earned him NL Rookie of the Year, but he wasn’t done yet as he led the Cubs to the NLCS, hitting two big home runs in the postseason that year.

Bryant’s 2016 breakout was remarkable, tho not unexpected. His wRC+ ticked up 13 points, and his batting average increased to .292. He hit 13 more home runs in just 49 more PA’s, which knocked his SLG up to .554, good for an OPS of .939. While his stolen bases dropped (he only had 8 last year) he drove in more runs (102 RBI) and scored more runs (121 R) in 2016. He added to his career fWAR by adding 1.8 more wins than he had in 2015, making Bryant worth 8.4 wins in 2016, best in the league and second only to Mike Trout. To cap off an amazing year, Bryant lead the Cubbies to their first World Series win in 108 years, hitting .308 in the postseason, including one extremely important home run that sparked an impressive comeback and three-game win streak.

Will Bryant be as good as he was in 2016? Almost certainly not. Was 2016 an anomaly that won’t happen again? We can’t know for sure, but Bryant’s extensive track record in the minor leagues, and his two years in the majors, he will certainly be a key piece for the Cubs in 2017.

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Right now Depth Charts has Bryant at 5.6 fWAR next season while Steamer has him work 5.8 wins. Don’t get me wrong, both of these are excellent projections, indicating he will almost certainly have an All-Star caliber season again, barring injury. That being said, FanGraphs’ crowdsourced projection “Fans” has Bryant at 7.6 wins, good for second in all of baseball (again behind Mike Trout) according to that predictor. So is Bryant going to be the sub-six win player that Steamer and Depth Charts think he is, or is he going to put up another potential MVP season?

If one bad thing can be said about Bryant’s MVP campaign, it’s that he didn’t hit well to the opposite field. The righthander’s spray chart doesn’t indicate a problem per se, but you can see that he pulls almost all of his home runs. In fact, only one of his 39 homers was hit to right, and he also only had 16 hits to right last year, as opposed to 23 the year before. He had a .404 OPS and .186 AVG on balls hit to right. To left, Bryant had 94 hits, 30 homers, and a laughable 1.393 OPS.

bryant-spray
(FanGraphs)

I want to get back to hitting the ball to right field. In the minor leagues, that’s where most of my power was. I was pitched inside so often to a point I pulled the ball very well. I’m sure guys are going to pitch me (away more now). That’s what they did in the minor leagues, and I want to get back to what I was doing so well.

Bryant even acknowledges that there was a problem. After an MVP season, Bryant still want’s to get better. He knows that he is pulling the ball more, as his 2015/2016 splits on balls to right indicate, and even in the face of success he wants to improve. If he can start hitting the ball to right field again as he has done in the past, there is no reason to think that he will not continue to improve or at least maintain his level of dominance. As he works to strike out less (his K% decreased 8.6% this year to a more league average 22%) his batting average and on base percentage should continue to rise.

Behind Bryant in terms of depth is the always impressive Javier Báez and prospect Jeimer Candelario, both of whom play good defense and can hit well. While it would be a major loss to lose Byrant for an extended period of time, the replacements at both the major and minor league levels are good as well.

Bryant not only provides insurance for the Cubs at the hot corner this year, but is set to be a stable presence in Chicago’s batting order for years to come.

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2016 World Series  - Chicago Cubs v. Cleveland Indians: Game Seven
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