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kris bryant defenseRecently, Baseball America asked every big league manager to break down the best major leaguers in a variety of categories, and the Cubs, admittedly, don’t have an extremely strong presence. Aside from Cubs skipper Joe Maddon’s rank among the top three managers in the National League (he may well be at the top by the end of the year), only one other Cub – Kris Bryant – made it into the top three of any category … and it’s not a category you would necessarily expect.

If you can believe it, according to all of the managers in MLB, Kris Bryant is the third best defensive third baseman in the National League. Standing behind Nolan Arenado (Rockies) and Todd Frazier (Reds), that is quite the compliment.

His recent offensive struggles notwithstanding (and even those might be turning), Bryant has generally been known for everything but his glove, and you usually didn’t have to go far in the past few years to find someone willing to say Bryant couldn’t stick at third base long-term.* His advanced approach at the plate, as well as his in-game and raw power had generally been his calling cards throughout his time in the minor leagues; and, if anything, his speed and base running intelligence/capabilities have been the most widely discussed “unexpected skill” once he made it to the show. Nonetheless, the managers have spoken, and we are left with some strong anecdotal evidence that the Cubs young slugger might be even more valuable than we anticipated.

On that last point, though, manager voting is just that: anecdotal. Mangers are people, after all, and people are susceptible to hype, narratives and story lines. So let’s take a look at some of the advanced defensive metrics and see if there’s any hard evidence to support the skippers’ claims.

First and foremost, I feel like mentioning that Kris Bryant’s 3.9 fWAR so far in 2015 is the highest among all NL third basemen, and is third overall in MLB, behind only Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson. That is awesome, Kris Bryant is awesome, and even something closer to below average defense at third base would still have resulted in an extremely valuable player. That we’re even discussing his rank among the best defensive third basemen is nothing short of amazing.

On the defensive metrics, it would appear, the ranking is not outlandish, though the numbers alone are not as conclusive as one would hope.

  • By defensive runs saved (DRS), Kris Bryant comes in fifth in the NL, behind Arenado, Martin Prado, Matt Duffy and Frazier.
  • By RZR (Revised Zone Rating – a stat that monitors the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that were successfully converted into an out), Bryant is seventh in the National league.
  • By OOZ (Out of Zone rating – a stat the measures the total number of outs made by a fielder on balls hit outside of his zone), Bryant is back up at fourth, behind just Arenado, Duffy and Frazier.
  • By the more inclusive UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating – read more about it, here) Kris Bryant’s score of 3.5 is good for third best in the National league, behind Arenado and Aramis Ramirez.

Ultimately, it seems that there is a pretty clear top two (Arenado at the top, Frazier behind him), followed by a mix of Bryant, Prado and Duffy battling for the third best at third base in the NL. When the numbers yield inconclusive results, our eyes, scouting reports and anecdotal evidence is often the best way to break the tie. Given the manager voting, then, it’s fair to suspect that Kris Bryant is very likely one of the top 3-5 defensive third basemen in the National League – a feat far beyond what expected coming into the season.

With the emergence of Kyle Schwarber in left field (and a possible learning curve there), and the less than encouraging defense across the rest of the outfield, Bryant’s ability to stick (and perform) at third base may be especially important going forward. At the very least, it appears that we have nothing to worry about for now, and may even have reason to get excited about his glove work in the future.

*Interestingly, the one exception to the longstanding questioning of Bryant’s defense at third was this very Baseball America top tools series last year, when managers deemed him the best defensive third baseman in the Pacific Coast League.

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