It would be near impossible to get through this post without reminding you that (1) Kris Bryant is on an expiring contract, (2) the Cubs have reportedly been very open to trading him for almost two years, (3) there seems to be an extremely low likelihood of an extension, and (4) the trade deadline could mark the end of his journey in Chicago if this team doesn’t turn it around (and I’m talking 180 degrees, starting asap).
BUT that’s not the stuff I want to talk about today.
Bryant is absolutely mashing through his first 40 plate appearances of the season, and I just want to examine and enjoy that performance, starting with his third multi-hit game of the season yesterday (2-4, HR). Can’t we just enjoy the one unquestionably good thing happening on offense? Especially after Bryant’s injury-mucked-up 2020 campaign?
Here’s another look at that homer:
That swing. *chef's kiss* pic.twitter.com/IDfqs2pWoM
— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) April 13, 2021
That ball wasn’t absolutely smoked (100.3 MPH) – as a matter of fact, his 9th inning single was struck harder (104.7 MPH) – but Bryant hit the sweet spot on his dinger (25 degree launch angle) so it got out in a HURRY. That was his third homer of the year and seventh extra base hit.
Altogether, the game brought his early-season slash line up to .265/.375/.647 (SO MUCH POWER), which is good for a 175 wRC+ (meaning he’s been 75% better than the league average player). Now, it’s not all good news, as his expected batting average (.244) and expected slugging percentage (.505) are both a fair bit lower than what he’s enjoyed. And he’s also striking out a lot more often than when he’s been at his absolute best (27.5%).
But I can just as easily point to his 39.1% sweet-spot rate (career best), 43.5% hard-hit rate (2nd best in career), 89.3 MPH average exit velocity (second best in his career), and 17.4% barrel rate (by FAR the best rate in his career).
Kris Bryant’s Barrel% Leaderboard
1. 17.4% (2021)
2. 11.7% (2016) – MVP
3. 11.5% (2015) – ROY
4. 9.6% (2017)
5. 9.3% (2019)
6. 9.1% (2018)
7. 5.5% (2020)
So, yeah, sure, his overall expected wOBA (.368) is much lower than his actual wOBA (.429), BUT his expected wOBA based on the quality of his contact and sprint speed is actually even HIGHER: .458 xwOBACON.
I know that’s a lot of letters and fancy stats, so let’s simplifiy: Bryant is hitting the ball extremely hard (even by his own MVP standards) and is hitting it on a line and in the air. Given that he’s also still taking his walks (12.5%), I think we can overlook the strikeouts. The guy is producing at a very high, Kris-Bryant-like level. It’s so great to see after last year’s injury mess.
It also makes me wonder if we’re going to quickly see a script change. So far this season, Bryant has seen far fewer sinkers and way more sliders than he’s seen historically.
There are other changes, too – and I suppose this could just be a product of whom he’s seen (the Cubs have played only two teams, so the pool of pitchers hasn’t been very diverse). But either way, this pitch mix seems to be working for him, and considering that he’s done his best against fastballs and changeups there’s not actually a very obvious/easy solution to neutralize his offensive onslaught. It seems at least as likely that this is just a really, really good hitter who’s finally fully healthy and doing his thing.
Does he still have things to work on? Sure. But what we’ve seen from Kris Bryant so far this season is as good as he gets. And as good as he gets is an MVP-caliber player. Whether you’ve got your eye on the division or prefer a mid-season sell-off, a healthy, extremely productive Kris Bryant is crucial for the 2021 Cubs.