Identifying the league’s most elite players isn’t easy, because they come in many different packages. Comparing middle-infield types like Javy Baez and Jose Altuve to bigger, corner players like Paul Goldschmidt or Anthony Rizzo, for example, presents some inherent challenges – and the comparison itself depends largely on what skillsets or traits you value most.
Of course, even if you focus in on one particular aspect of a player’s overall game – let’s say, offense – you still have to create some artificial/subjective cutoffs to define certain tiers of performance. For example, let’s think about wRC+ – an all-encompassing advanced offensive statistic that assigns a number to a player’s overall output relative to the league average (always 100) and adjusts for park factors – every point above or below 100 is exactly what percent better or worse than the league average you have been.
If you have a wRC+ of 100, you are exactly a league-average hitter. Anyone with a score between 100-115 wRC+ is typically a sure-fire everyday starter if your defense is passable – for the Cubs this season, that included Willson Contreras (100 wRC+), Ian Happ (106 wRC+), Daniel Murphy (115 wRC+), and Kyle Schwarber (115 wRC+).
From 115 wRC+ to about a 130 wRC+ is where I’d say you have the borderline All-Stars who might be just missing the cut as a few other players at their position were better. For the Cubs this year, that includes Ben Zobrist (123 wRC+), Kris Bryant (125 wRC+), and Anthony Rizzo (125 wRC+).
We’re really splitting hairs at this next level, but I’d argue the next tier is the second to last one, and includes guys in the 130 wRC+ to 140 wRC+ range. These are the sure-fire All-Stars, and the guys who just miss the cut of the elite (Javy Baez, 131 wRC+, was here). And finally, anything over 140 wRC+ (the top ten hitters this year were 140 or higher) is baseball’s most elite offensive production. The numbers can go MUCH higher than that, of course, as Mike Trout (191 wRC+) has demonstrated, but usually 140 wRC+ and higher is the elite of the elite.
So with that in mind, consider Kris Bryant’s offensive production from his first four big league seasons:
2015: 136 wRC+
2016: 148 wRC+
2017: 146 wRC+
2018: 125 wRC+
As you can see, Bryant set what appeared to be a floor of “sure-fire All-Star” in his rookie season and followed it up with back-to-back elite, MVP-caliber performances in 2016 and 2017. This year, however, he was in that borderline All-Star level, which is a full tier or two lower than what we’ve come to (rightly) expect from him. Of course, this was obviously due to the shoulder injury he suffered on May 19.
In fact, it sure seemed like, prior to the injury, Bryant was on pace for his best offensive season yet. He was performing at levels typically reserved for the best 2-3 hitters in any given year.
From the season opener on March 29th through his last fully healthy game May 18th (174 PAs), Kris Bryant slashed .303/.425/.592, which was good for a 170 wRC+, career bests across the board. But on the 19th, he hurt his shoulder, and his season never quite got back on track.
From that day forward, Bryant stepped up to the plate just 283 more times, slashing .255/.343/.385 with a slightly below average 98 wRC+. Many aspects of Bryant’s game took a hit after his injury – his walk rate dipped, his strikeout rate exploded, his groundball rate increased, etc. – but the total loss of power was probably the most apparent and damming issue: Bryant had a .289 ISO before his injury, which would’ve ranked just outside the top 5 in baseball at the end of this season, but a .130 ISO afterwords, which would’ve ranked outside the top 100.
We could drill down further into the data to analyze why his power evaporated, but I think we all more or less know it was due to his shoulder injury. At last check, Theo Epstein said he still believed surgery would not be necessary to repair Bryant’s shoulder, so this all leads us into the multi-million dollar question … will the recovery/injury seep into Bryant’s production next season?
It’s a legitimate question and fear, but thankfully there’s evidence to believe that it will not!
At The Athletic, Sahadev Sharma did some excellent investigative work, looking back at players who’ve had similar injuries (shoulder inflammation to their front arm (left for righties and right for lefties)), and the fruits of that research were definitely positive. You can and should check out his article for the full explanations and charts, but the super short version is that, in similar instances, a player’s ISO returned back to its usual levels in the season immediately following the injury.
The health of Kris Bryant's left shoulder could be the key to his 2019 season. A look at how others have bounced back from shoulder injuries that sapped their power may tell us what we can expect for KB. https://t.co/CBtrls9Y98
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) October 25, 2018
— The Athletic (@TheAthleticCHI) October 25, 2018
But Sharma takes it a step further, digging into even more serious non-surgical shoulder injuries, and finding more good news involving players returning to pre-injury levels of performance, albeit with some reduction in playing time. Read his piece for the full details. It should be comforting, even as we recognize no two injuries are identical, nor are two players’ abilities to heal.
Armed with this knowledge, there is some reason for confidence that Bryant can and will return into that elite tier of performance next year, though we must brace for the fact that Bryant could miss some time. Of course, Joe Maddon will probably give Bryant more than the usual amount of rest to combat that deterioration, but it’s something to prepare for nonetheless. Working in Bryant’s favor is his relative youth, track record of health, and the sort of work ethic that eliminates any questions of effort or ignorance to the importance of the rehabilitation process. But, I’m a Cubs fan, so I remain guarded.
At a minimum, it seems reasonable to hope that Bryant should be at his full effectiveness, whenever he’s on the field.