The Cubs have struggled of late, dropping two of four in Pittsburgh and getting swept by the Brewers in a key divisional matchup. Chicago fans are riled up and passing blame in all directions. One target of the fans’ discontent is none other than 2016 MVP Kris Bryant.
On the surface it seems odd to blame Bryant. The star third baseman is slashing .285/.402/.526 this season with 26 homers. His detractors argue his numbers are hollow, with a lack of RBI production and, most importantly, a dearth of clutch hitting.
We’ll get to the latter topic in a moment, but let’s address the low RBI total first. Bryant’s on pace to drive in only 74 runs, much lower than the 102 he drove in last season. But those runs batted in are not fully in the control of the hitter, who can’t determine who is on base in front of him.
The critics will say that’s the whole ballgame, that the purpose of baseball is to produce runs and KB has hurt the team with his lack of run production. They aren’t telling the entire story, however, as the blue-eyed bomber has scored 95 runs in 2017. That’s good for 8th in MLB, tied with Joey Votto, someone who’s kind of good at this whole baseballing thing. Does scoring a run not count as much as knocking one in?
When we take into account aggregate metrics like wOBA (weighted on-base average) and wRC+ (weighted runs created, adjusted for league and park variables), Bryant is right in line with last year’s award-winning season. These stats seek to measure the value of individual offensive events and also to weigh production against league average. Bryant’s .392 wOBA and 142 wRC+ are each a mere four points lower than in 2016.
So that’s that. The bigger area of contention surrounds Bryant’s lack of “clutch” hitting, which I put in quotes because I’m highly dubious of it as an actual stat. Players such as Manny Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Allen Craig have been lauded as clutch hitters in the past. Ramirez was an elite hitter in any circumstances, Sandoval just went 38 straight at bats without a hit, and Craig is out of baseball.
FanGraphs has produced a “Clutch” (this time the quotes indicate that this is actually the name they use) stat to try to define, you guessed it, clutch-ness in baseball. This basically measures a players offensive production in high-leverage situations. Sure enough, Bryant ranks second to last in clutch hitting in 2017.
Before I conclude this, a brief look at what Bryant has accomplished in big situations. He had two walk-off homers in 2015, including the capper to the season-defining comeback against the Rockies. Not big enough for you? He also hit the game-tying homer in Game 5 of the World Series. Which the Cubs won, people forget that.
A quick thought experiment: In the 10th inning of World Series Game 7, a certain corner infielder flew out to the wall in right. If the ball had traveled two more feet, would said player’s clutch hitting ever have been questioned again?
So about that list of clutch and un-clutch hitters here in 2017. The most clutch hitter this season is none other than Melky Cabrera, just ahead of the remains of Albert Pujols. Alex Gordon, possessor of a .582 OPS, rates as the 13th most-clutch. Who joins KB in the cellar? The bottom five in order are: Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Ramirez, Kris Bryant, and Aaron Judge.
I think I would prefer the “un-clutch” players in 2017, but that’s just me.