One of the most prominent, somewhat-under-the-radar storylines accompanying this 2017 season is Kris Bryant’s struggles in the moments that matter most.
Indeed, despite watching him be consistently awesome on a daily basis and then proving that he’s awesome by checking out his statistics afterwords, he certainly doesn’t have a lot of memorable offensive moments this season, right?
I mean, seriously, just going off memory, does anything that Kris Bryant has done from this season stick out like that walk-off homer at Wrigley back in 2015?
I’d bet not.
Because somehow, some way, Kris Bryant has managed to seem downright pedestrian in high-leverage moments, despite the fact that he’s almost always, definitely fantastic. And it was on that perception of mediocrity that Jeff Sullivan launched his investigation: The One Stain on Kris Bryant’s Record.
Using his strikeout in the bottom of the ninth inning with two on and one out against the Blue Jays last week at Wrigley Field, Sullivan tries to get to the bottom of the “Is Kris Bryant unclutch?” question. But before he even digs in, he absolutely NAILS an extremely important caveat.
I’ll let him explain it in his own words, because I think he put it beautifully:
“There’s a difference between saying a player is unclutch, and saying a player has been unclutch. The former would be a hell of a statement. The latter is easy enough to demonstrate with evidence. Clutch performance tends to be volatile; it hasn’t been shown to be a sticky attribute. It is not my belief that Kris Bryant is actually, naturally, unclutch.”
Just so we’re clear, I agree with that sentiment 100%. Just because Bryant has been unclutch, doesn’t mean he is unclutch, or will be going forward. Just like pitcher wins or RBIs, there’s a whole lot of noise and extraneous variables to get through in order to suggest a player actually is unclutch, so don’t do it for now, okay? Cool.
With that said … Kris Bryant has been really unclutch the last couple years. In fact, historically so. And it’s not just this season. In 2016, you see, Kris Bryant’s Clutch score of -2.37 was the fourth lowest in all of baseball. But, hey, like Sullivan said, this isn’t a sticky stat, right? One season of being unclutch does not a trend make.
Well, in 2017 Bryant’s clutch score is even worse: -3.05 … and that’s the worst mark in all of baseball.
Take a look at this chart, you see the yellow dot? That’s Kris Bryant, all by himself in the trend-less web of random clutch (and unclutch) performances:
So now that we’ve covered the fact that this isn’t just a 2017 trend for Bryant, it’s time to see why that’s somehow historic.
Sullivan’s win probability data can reach only as far back as 1974, but since that time, no one in MLB has put together two less clutch seasons in back-to-back years. And it’s not some small number either. In fact, it’s quite bad: “From a win-expectancy perspective, over the past two seasons,” Sullivan writes, “Kris Bryant as a hitter has been something like five wins less valuable than you might’ve expected him to be.”
Now, then, it’s important to point out that this conversation begins with a statistic FanGraphs uses to evaluate “clutch,” and there’s probably a lot more that goes into a player’s actual performance in those situations (which is why the whole debate about clutchness has raged for decades).
But what’s crazy – and I almost hate to feed the conspiracy theorists here – is that in low leverage moments, Kris Bryant has been the second best hitter in all of baseball. In the highest leverage moments, he’s the second worse hitter. It’s not just your mind playing tricks: he really goes from first to worst when the game is on the line.
This does not mean Bryant is in some core, permanent way a guy who can’t come through in the big moments. There could be acres of bad luck baked into these numbers, and we could see it all normalize over a long enough stretch. After all, Bryant was the 5th MOST “clutch” hitter in 2015. What, did he somehow “forget” how to be clutch?
Sullivan has much more information in his post, including thoughts on the Cubs unclutch-ness altogether and where that ranks among the rest of the league, so you’ll want to check it out. And for now, just know: you’re not going crazy.
Kris Bryant really has been unclutch for two straight seasons … it’s just that, without a lot more data, we’d still guess he probably won’t be going forward.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.