So there’s this Chicago Cubs über prospect named Kris Bryant. You may have heard of him. He was drafted 2nd overall in the 2013 Draft, and then went on to be a destroyer of worlds in the minors. His career stats in the minors are .327/.448/.666 with 52 HR. He has basically been Miguel Cabrera except with a high strikeout rate.
Now of course, that is scouting the stat line, which isn’t scouting. The industry consensus indicates that Bryant projects to be a 55 hitter and already has 70 power. He’s not going to be adding any value on the basepaths, but he does have a plus arm. His fielding is one of the questions about him, however. At 6’5”, 215 lbs., he’s awfully big for a 3rd baseman. At that size he lacks the agility needed to field the position well. He has not looked good there at all in spring training. Of course, he’s not a finished product, and there’s no reason to believe that he can’t be a least a fringe average defender there. Worst case scenario is that he has to move to right field. His bat will play anywhere, but moving to right field would result in a decrease in value.
Despite his electrifying spring, Bryant still has room for development with his bat. Although he projects as a 55 hitter, he’s not there yet, and is more likely a 40-45 hitter at present. He has a long swing that causes him to struggle with velocity, especially on the inner half of the strike zone. He has been a high strikeout hitter in the minors, and will probably always be that way to some extent. However, if he wants to max out the effectiveness of that monster power of his, he’s going to have to close the holes in his swing.
Bryant has been lighting the baseball world on fire in spring training, which is causing all kinds of discussions and controversies about whether or not he should be on the opening day roster. Of course he should, and I’ll delve more into that subject shortly, but it has absolutely, positively nothing to do with his spring training stats. Let me be absolutely clear:
Spring training stats are completely and utterly meaningless. They have ZERO predictive value. You should never, ever, ever draw any conclusions based on spring training numbers.
Yet, fans, the media, and even some front offices keep making the same mistake year after year by drawing conclusions based on spring training results. Stop it! There are many instances in baseball history when a player excelled in spring training but sucked during the regular season, or vice versa. First and foremost, spring training stats suffer from small sample size. Furthermore, there’s a fair amount of inferior competition with players that have little to no shot at making the major league squad. Even the good players tend to test out tweaks to their mechanics/swings/pitches/etc. that usually result in diminished effectiveness. Why not experiment if you know that you’re assured of making the team?
So far this spring, Bryant is hitting .406/.472/1.313 with 9 HR, which leads the majors. However, that’s in a minuscule sample of 36 PA, which is roughly 5% of the plate appearances a player gets over the course of a full season. Call me crazy, but I also don’t think that Bryant will continue homering in 25% of his plate appearances either. In fact, other than Félix Hernández, the eight other pitchers who have surrendered a home run to Bryant are a rather underwhelming group. Here are their career numbers and 2015 ZiPS projections.
|G||GS||IP||K/9||BB/9||ERA||FIP||WAR||Proj. ERA||Proj. FIP||Proj. WAR|
Not exactly a murderer’s row, huh? Baseball Reference has a metric that measures the quality of competition faced in the majors during spring training as a result of the number of minor leaguers who see action. Every player gets a rating based on the level in which they played the prior season. If you want to learn more about it, click here. The quality of competition that Bryant has faced so far this spring comes in at 8.7, which means that the pitching that Bryant has been facing averages out at Triple A quality. We already knew that Bryant could destroy Triple A pitching. So if spring training stats are so unreliable and misleading, what’s the argument that Bryant is ready for The Show?
The scouting. Trust the scouting. A scouting report is the only thing that has any kind of predictive value in spring training. It’s the only thing that organizations should be using in order to make the final decisions on minor leaguers and players without a significant track record in the majors. Check the scouting information on Bryant that I relayed earlier, or any report you can find online. He could’ve been a September call-up last season had the Cubs been contending. As you can see below, all the prospect rankings have him as the best or one of the best prospects in baseball, and these rankings came up before spring training.
|Keith Law, ESPN||1|
|Kiley McDaniel, Fangraphs||1|
Any professional scout who has evaluated Bryant would’ve told you he was major league ready six months ago.
It is common knowledge among baseball fans that the Cubs intend to start Bryant off in the minors for 12 days in order to delay his service time by one year. Cubs fans especially are upset by this. Of course, Bryant and his agent, the infamous Scott Boras, are also frustrated by this service time manipulation because delaying Bryant’s free agency by one year delays the big payday that Bryant is likely to see someday.
First, let’s address the baseball issues. With Bryant in the minors, the Cubs will likely turn to Mike Olt to fill in at 3rd base. Olt is excellent defensively, but has not shown any signs of being able to hit yet. He has struggled with injuries, including a vision problem at one point, so it’s possible that he can improve offensively. Honestly, his defense is so good that he doesn’t have to hit much, but a 60 wRC+ isn’t going to cut it. Regardless, there isn’t enough of a difference between Olt and Bryant that him missing ~9 games will have any effect on the standings. ZiPS projects that Bryant will be worth 4.2 WAR this season. Even if you want to be optimistic and say he has the upside to deliver 6 WAR, which certainly wouldn’t surprise me, keeping Bryant down in the minors will only cost the Cubs half of a win. Moreover, the Cubs are likely still one year away from truly being contenders1.
It just doesn’t make any sense to accelerate Bryant’s service clock in order to gain half a win in a season where the coin flip game is the likely best case scenario. The case for sending him down is even further strengthened given that his agent is Scott Boras. If Bryant turns into the player he is projected to be, then Boras is probably going to ask for ~$225 million in free agency. It would be crazy to not want to delay that, especially since Bryant will still be in his prime. Oh, and Boras does not do extensions because they result in less money. If he did, the Cubs probably would’ve already extended Bryant, not unlike what the Astros did with George Springer and Jon Singleton.
A quick aside on Boras: He is seemingly reviled among fans and front offices. I have to admit that I don’t have a good impression of him either. You have to remember, though, that Boras is an advocate for his clients. It’s not his job to be objective. His job is to get every last dollar he can for his clients. Baseball is a business. You don’t have to like it, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with what he does. Think of it this way: Wouldn’t you rather that as much money as possible goes to the players? The guys who actually provide us with the product we enjoy so much? Because if not them, then the money goes to the owners. They are far more replaceable than the players.
By starting Bryant in the minors they’re gaining an extra year of control and probably saving a bunch of money in the process. As much as we would all love to see Bryant make his major league debut on Sunday Night Baseball on April 5, the decision really is a no-brainer.
The problem isn’t the Cubs. The problem is the rule that makes it advantageous for the Cubs to make this decision. It’s worth revisiting next time the CBA is opened up, but creating a system that is fair to both sides is a lot easier said than done. Keith Law suggested a one year restricted free agency, similar to what the NBA has, for players with six years of service time who were called up on opening day. It’s not a bad idea, really, and it’s not like I have a better one. The problem is that it further complicates the system. At the end of the day, if there’s a loophole, somebody will exploit it.
I don’t blame Boras, Bryant, or Cubs fans for being unhappy with the situation. Heck, I’m unhappy with the situation. Bryant deserves to start the season with the big league club. You can bet that I’ll be firing up MLB.tv to tune into the Cubs when Bryant does make his debut. To his credit, Bryant has handled the situation with class and maturity. The one good thing that will come out of this is that it will make Bryant Super Two eligible, meaning that he can apply for arbitration one year earlier than normal. That’s one less year in which he’ll be forced to make the league minimum. If Bryant becomes the player we expect him to be, it’s going to be A LOT more than the league minimum, too.
Kris Bryant is a tremendous talent. It’s a shame that the current rules make it so that the Cubs are most benefited by starting him in the minors. In the end, Bryant will make his money. As for the fans, think of it as further building up the excitement for his debut.
- Don’t get me wrong, though, because they might be able to snatch a wild card slot this year. ↩