He is the future. He is the truth. And Kris Bryant is also the talk of the baseball world after a hot start to the spring that has seen him blasting home runs that are somehow remarkable and routine at the same time.
Cubs fans have been fawning over the beaming baseballer since he came to the team with the #2 pick in the 2013 amateur draft and began clubbing baseballs over every fence at every level of the minors. Soon enough, he’ll grace billboards across Chicago, but for now he’s become the poster boy for MLB’s service time guidelines.
Tony Clark and the MLBPA have been keeping an eye on Bryant, and now fellow players and even media personalities are getting into the mix. And you can only expect the calls for Bryant to make the team out of spring training to increase, particularly after performances like he had in his hometown of Las Vegas.
Fellow Las Vegan Bryce Harper spoke out on Twitter in support his Vegas-made brotha, saying it’s a joke if Bryant doesn’t head to Chicago out of the gate. Joining the chorus was Cubs pre- and post-game analyst Todd Hollandsworth, who tweeted:
If the Cubbies have plans for contending in ’15, Kris Bryant will be at 3B Opening Night. This division is 2 tough to forfeit games w/o him!
— Todd Hollandsworth (@hollytime28) March 15, 2015
Should Kris Bryant be added to the 25-man roster? That’s a clown question, bro. Will he be added, though, that’s the question. And while no MLB exec will ever own up to purposely manipulating a player’s service time, it’s impossible to deny that such measures are taken with superstar prospects, particularly those represented by the likes of Scott Boras.
So let’s assume the widely-held foregone conclusion that Bryant will spend anywhere from 2 weeks to a month at AAA Iowa to open the season, ostensibly to work on his defense. How many games will the Cubs “forfeit w/out him?” I’m going to look at a few different angles to see how Bryant’s presence, or lack thereof, in the Cubs’ lineup would impact the team.
For the purpose of this exercise, I’m going to assume that Bryant averages 4.25 plate appearances per game. From that point, I’m going to work from a few different projections and comparisons to determine his relative WAR* over both 11- and 22-game stretches (essentially, the least and most time he would miss).
It should be obvious to anyone that a player is not going to have the same impact in each and every game he plays, but it’s necessary here to spread WAR out in order to judge incremental value on a per-game basis.
PECOTA is actually very conservative in terms of Bryant’s games played (~93, 394 PA’s), but is incredibly bullish on his WAR in that timeframe (3.9, highest on the team). While I scoffed a bit at Holly’s proclamation, this projection certainly seems to say that Bryant is believed to be the team’s best player.
A 3.9 WAR in the given sample size breaks down to about .042 wins/game. That might not seem like a lot, but it amounts to .46 wins over an 11-game period and .92 over all 22 games in April. Either of those totals could come in very handy in either the division or the Wild Card races down the stretch.
Is it fair to compare Bryant with the best player in baseball? No. But there are only three types of fair: County, State, and World’s; everything else is not fair. So with that in mind, I’m going to look at Trout’s first full MLB season (when he was more than 2 years younger that Bryant will be this year) to see what could be).
The Angel in the outfield compiled a 10.8 WAR in 139 games, for an average of .078/game. If Bryant is able to duplicate that performance, he’d be worth .86 wins in 11 games and 1.72 over the course of the season’s opening month. Both of those totals could be huge for this burgeoning ballclub.
Of course, such an example comes with a huge caveat, which is that Mike Trout is an absolute monster and that was his career-best from a WAR perspective. Even using his worst (7.9 over 157 games in 2014), we’d get .56 and 1.12 wins over the course of our given samples.
If you want another reason to marvel at the above-referenced season from Mike Trout, consider that in his 64-HR, 160-RBI 2001 season, Sammy Sosa had a WAR of only (only!) 10.3. Amazingly enough, his ’98 MVP campaign saw a total of only 6.4.
Talk of various enhancements aside, we’re looking at a potential value of .065 wins/game, or .72 and 1.44 wins that Bryant could account for in 2015.
It’s one thing to try to compare Bryant to another player’s best-ever season, but what about a more comparable hitter in terms of both experience and position. Albert Pujols came up playing primarily 3B, though he did mix in some OF and 1B in 2001 as well. And while his listed age was 21, it’s highly possible that he was closer to Bryant’s 23.
In his rookie season in St. Louis, Big Bert put up a 6.6 WAR over 161 games, good for a .041 per-game average. The .45 and .90 wins generated over 11 or 22 games look strikingly similar to what PECOTA had projected. Good news, everyone: Bryant will be Pujols!
Based upon the stats above, it’s possible that Kris Bryant’s presence in the lineup could earn the Cubs as many as 1.72 wins. If the team was in a purely win-now mode, and if they believed he had that sort of potential, adding him to the roster would be a no-brainer.
I’m going to go out on a limb, however, and say that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer don’t expect Bryant to account for the equivalent of nearly 11 wins over the course of his rookie season. And there are other problems with assumptions and extrapolations such as those above as well.
The first of these problems is that we’re assuming that Bryant will account for wins above the average replacement player, but that’s assuming that a combination of Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt plays only at replacement level. If they actually perform well, the incremental value of having Bryant in Chicago goes down.
The other troublesome factor is the possibility of an adjustment factor of sorts, the idea that a rookie may struggle a bit as he acclimates to the big leagues. Of course, you also see cases like Javy Baez, in which initial performance is actually far better than in the ensuing games. But if Bryant takes time to adjust, his immediate value is lower than his aggregate.
I don’t think anyone will argue that Bryant is not one of the 25 best players in the Cubs’ organization, and I’m pretty sure you’d have a hard time finding someone who believes he’s not in the top 5. That said, it’s still a bit ludicrous to say that the team is forfeiting games by not having him in Chicago from Day 1.
Given the projections and the mitigation of value by the Cubs’ presumed season-opening platoon, not to mention potential adjustment, I’ll guess that the Cubs will lose perhaps .25 games out of 11 and .5 out of 22 that Bryant misses. Not exactly earth-shattering.
Selfishly, I’m hoping the Cubs hold him back for the first 17 games of the season, as I’ve got tickets to the 4/25 contest in Cincinnati and I’d love to witness such an exciting debut. Then again, baseball is a game of minutia and I might be singing a different tune when this unicorn tears up the league and the Cubs miss the playoffs by a game.
*WAR totals courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com