At 8:33 pm on April 16, 2015, Jesse Rogers pressed send on the following tweet …
Breaking. Source: Kris Bryant to be called up by Cubs on Friday. Story coming at http://t.co/iRRtXbR1Vj
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) April 17, 2015
One day later – exactly three years ago today – Kris Bryant was called up to the Chicago Cubs, worked through a terrible debut (we’ll get to that in a second) and eventually helped lead the Cubs to their first World Series in 108 years.
To celebrate the anniversary of his first game we thought it would be fun to look back on these last three years of Kris Bryant, starting with that hilariously rough debut (well, it’s certainly funny in hindsight, right?), before moving onto more successful stuff.
Three years ago today, Kris Bryant happened. MLB debut at Wrigley. First time on vid board, meeting fans, National Anthem, first PA anticipation. #EverybodyIn @Cubs #letsgo #thatscub #gocubsgo @BleacherNation pic.twitter.com/hVA0XXFAEG
— MBDChicago (@MBDChicago) April 17, 2018
Kris Bryant’s first big league game came against the San Diego Padres and their new last-minute, big-time free agent starting pitcher James Shields. Shields, you’ll recall, was coming off a pretty great season with the Royals at the time, and figured to be a particularly tough matchup for Bryant … which he was.
Batting cleanup – behind Dexter Fowler, Jorge Soler, and Anthony Rizzo – Kris Bryant went 0-4 at the plate, with three strikeouts and five batters left on base. And they weren’t even particularly competitive at-bats, as he struck out swinging in each of his first three chances before grounding out to third base in his final trip.
No one was freaking out over his start – and many recalled that his first minor league game after being drafted No. 2 overall by the Cubs in 2014 was 0-5, 5 K performance – but it was a bit of a sad-trombone-style letdown after the all the hype. But Bryant didn’t make us wait long, because the very next day he wound up going 2-3 at the plate with 3 walks … and so everything began.
2015 Highlight: The Walk-Off
(Bryant actually hit TWO walk-off homers that summer – the second coming against the Indians – but this was the one that has forever stood out.)
By the end of 2015, Bryant had built up a .275/.369/.488 slash line (136 wRC+) with 26 homers, an 11.6% walk rate and a 30.6% strikeout rate. Along the way, he became an All-Star for the first time, earned down ballot MVP votes, and became the Cubs’ first Rookie of the Year since Geovany Soto in 2008.
That he had also helped the Cubs reach the postseason for the first time since 2008 – tackling the Pirates and Cardinals on their way to the Cubs’ first NLCS since 2003 – was just gravy … and maybe a bit of a tease of things to come.
But it wasn’t all good news, remember? Bryant had an AWESOME first year, yes, but his 30.6% strikeout rate was third highest in baseball among qualified hitters and his 199 individual Ks were tied for the 11th most in a single season of all time. Clearly he could produce even with the strikeouts, but that was considered something of a cap on the type of player he could ultimately become.
And then he showed us how special he really was.
One season after a 30.6% strikeout rate, Bryant struck out 45 fewer times, despite 49 *more* plate appearances. His strikeout rate dropped from an unnerving 30.6 K% to a just-barely-above-average 22.0 K%. But that’s not even the most impressive part. Usually, most guys can cut down their strikeout rate *a little,* but when they do, they imperil their power and overall production. Not Bryant. He took a .213 ISO, .488 SLG, and 136 wRC+ in 2015, cut his strikeout rate by about 8 percentage points and improved to a .262 ISO, .554 SLG, and 148 wRC+. He also smashed 13 more home runs, scored 34 more runs, and knocked in over 100, himself.
2016 Highlight: The Final Out
By the end of the regular season, Bryant’s final slash line read .292/.385/.554 (148 wRC+). Unsurprisingly, he was once again an All-Star, and took home his first MVP honors at the ripe old age of 24.
Moving onto 2017 is tricky … I think a lot of Cubs fans assume Bryant had a *bit* of a down year (obviously not down-down, more like down relative to greatness … just like the Cubs’ season as a whole), but that wouldn’t really be fair. Sure, his 146 wRC+ was slightly lower than the 148 wRC+ he posted in 2016 and his 6.6 WAR was well below the 7.8 WAR he put up in his MVP season, but there was so much to like.
Not only did Bryant ONCE AGAIN cut his strikeout rate significantly (19.2% by the end of the season, 34th lowest in the NL) he actually raised his walk rate immensely – up to 14.3%, 3rd best in the NL – hit for a higher average than ever before (.295), and got on base at a truly elite rate (.409 – 7th best in MLB).
Suddenly, unexpectedly, and for the third straight season, we had to reassess his ceiling.
2017 Highlight: Over the Green Monster, Love for Dad
By the end of the 2017 season, Kris Bryant’s slash line was a pretty .295/.409/.537 with 29 homers and 7 stolen bases. Despite missing the All-Star game for the first time in his career, he wound up finishing among the top-7 in the NL MVP voting, and probably should’ve been even higher.
And all of that brings us to this season.
So far Kris Bryant has stepped up to the plate just 69 times through 14 games, but so far he’s looking better than ever. Not only is Bryant’s slash line an insane .352/.493/.611 here in the early going, he’s somehow managed to walk EVEN MORE (14.5%) and strikeout EVEN LESS (11.6%). Maybe we should’ve caught onto the trend by now, but I am annually blown away by his ability to improve his overall production (particularly in the power department) while lowering his strikeout rate AND improving his walk rate.
While we always thought Bryant would be a great hitter, I don’t think anyone expected him to become one of those Joey Votto impossible to strikeout types. But here we are.
In every single season since he’s debuted, Bryant has improved his approach at the plate, while remaining a consistent or above average defender at third, and one of the best base runners in baseball.
Three years later and Kris Bryant has proven that he’s among the smartest, most talented, most willing (and able!) to adjust hitters in the game. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason not to believe he’s headed for a Hall-of-Fame career.
And we’re just three years in.