I was a little chapped when Ben Zobrist didn’t even get nominated for the Comeback Player of the Year award last season, because he sure as heck earned it:
2017: .232/.318/.375 (82 wRC+); 0.4 WAR
2018: .305/.378/.440 (123 wRC+); 3.6 WAR
Fortunately, I may not have to wait too long for another Chicago Cub to claim the honor, because Kris Bryant is beginning to get some obvious, but deserved attention in that arena:
Players projected to bounce back the most (2018 WAR, Steamer projected 2019 WAR)
1) Kris Bryant (+3.5)
2) Carlos Correa
3) Chris Davis
4) Buster Posey
5) Yangervis Solarte (+2)
I see some health issues for three, Buster’s the worst of the those three.
But the other two?
— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) January 9, 2019
Kris Bryant’s 2018 season is a little misleading, statistically speaking. Obviously, he dealt with a shoulder injury in May that limited him to just 102 total games and less than half as many healthy ones, but it’s more complicated than that.
Here’s a look at where the injury originated for the Cubs’ third baseman, during a doubleheader in Cincinnati on May 19:
This slide into first base on May 19 against the Reds is very likely when Kris Bryant injured his shoulder.
Posted by Bleacher Nation on Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Bryant appears to have injured his shoulder on that slide into first base, but it wasn’t as obvious until he stole second a couple batters later. Now, I’m not fluent in body-language, but in hindsight, the way Bryant perched on second base after the slide, taking off his helmet and collecting himself sure didn’t look good:
We didn’t even notice at the time. No one did. But everything changed after that.
If you look only at Bryant’s end-of-season numbers, his .272/.374/.460 (125 wRC+) slash line makes him look like a typical All-Star simply having a more mediocre season than usual. In reality, Bryant was absolutely BRILLIANT early in the year/before his injury (169 wRC+ in his first 185 PAs), but literally below average after that (96 wRC+ in his final 272 plate appearances). In other words, it wasn’t an evenly distributed, above-average performance – it was equal parts excellent and poor, which feels notable.
Frustrating as it was – and unimportant as it may be – I think that actually helps his case for comeback player of the year. But that’s not really the point – the award is meaningless, next to the actual performance – so let’s check out those Steamer Projections compared to last season and to his final 272 plate appearances, to see what a bounce-back might look like on the field:
Clearly, Steamer is putting stock in Bryant’s age 27 season, because as a projection, which is conservative in nature, that is one beautiful early look. In fact, that projects as the 11th best wRC+ in all of baseball. And by WAR, Bryant would lead the National League with 5.8, while trailing only Mike Trout (9.3), Mookie Betts (7.2), and Francisco Lindor (6.7)!
I can’t say I blame the lofty projections.
Before the 2018 season, Bryant was legitimately one of the top 5 or so players in baseball. Oddly, thanks to the rise of Javy Baez and Bryant’s injury-shortened and affected 2018 season, it feels like Cubs fans have forgotten that. But in his pre-injury 2018 days, Bryant was even better than that. Before hurting his shoulder, Bryant was on pace for the best offensive season of his career, pretty much across the board. He was walking more than ever, striking out even less than ever, hitting for a much higher average, and still slugging quite a bit. I really believe we were in store for an entirely different level of Bryant – something in the 160-170 wRC+ range (Bryant has yet to crack 150 wRC+ for a full season).
If Bryant is healthy going forward, as he is believed to be? Bring on the dominance.
But even if we don’t get that next-level guy this season, Steamer is projecting a return to his 2016-2017 form right away. And if he manages to pull that off, winning Comeback Player of the Year will look adorable next to his second MVP trophy.
(Do they get actual trophies for the MVP award? They do, right? Or a gold medal or something?)