If you don’t live on the North Side of Chicago, or carry those emotions, then like most of the baseball world you’ve probably forgotten about Kris Bryant at some point in the last few years. Even a good portion of those who do pass through the Addison Red Line stop had written him off or made him some sort of scapegoat, as the Cubs fortunes have tumbled as his body failed him.
Which makes it jarring to remember that since Bryant came into the league in 2015, only two players have amassed more fWAR than him, according to FanGraphs: Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Two absolute gods of the game, not just active but of all time. Bryant is some nine fWAR behind Betts, but being behind Betts and Trout is no shame. Even if he’s best of “the rest,” that’s a mighty tall mountain to sit atop.
Bryant has spent the first six weeks of this season reminding everyone that he, too, walks among the giants.
Bryant is tied for third in both fWAR so far this season (trailing Trout and Ronald Acuña Jr.) and wRC+ (trailing Bogaerts and Trout). He’s slashing .315/.401/.661/1.071. Only Acuña has more homers in the NL, and Bryant has basically been just about the only bright spot in the Cubs lineup, and certainly the most consistent.
What is setting Bryant apart from his teammates, and what has sunk them for the previous couple seasons, is that Bryant is the only one of the important Cubs players that can hit a premium fastball. Whereas Rizzo, Contreras, Happ, and Baez can simply be blasted out of the box by anything over 95 MPH, Bryant has been able to at least stay afloat on fastballs, with a .240 average .360 slugging. While that doesn’t sound very imposing, it’s practically Ruthian when compared to his buddies. Bryant has also been very good with pitches at the top of the zone, where his teammates tend to get beat.
There’s a little air in Bryant’s numbers, as currently over a quarter of his fly balls have turned into homers. His career mark in HR/FB ratio is 16.7 percent. That will come down. Bryant’s also seen a big reduction in his launch angle, but has seen a big jump in the amount of pitches he’s “barreled,” according to Statcast.
You don’t have to point to much else, or some great change, to explain Bryant’s early season dominance, other than the fact that there isn’t anything on his body sounding and acting like crumpled-up paper. Bryant has spent the past couple seasons in injury hell. It seems so long ago now, but Bryant played at an MVP level in 2017, one year after his actual MVP season. But at the end of 2018, his body started to break down. Bryant spent parts or all of the next three seasons battling shoulder or wrist problems, which are just about the worst parts of the body for a hitter to have ailing. Last year, Bryant tried to battle through an actual fractured wrist, which is insane (both that he even tried it and that the Cubs even let him).
The injuries certainly changed the perception of Bryant inside and outside the organization. As the delirium of 2016 began to clear and the Cubs fully devoted themselves to become the modern-day version of the ‘85 Bears (a once-in-a-lifetime team that might be remembered more for only winning one than the triumph of that one), Bryant took a lot of flak. After all, he was the only one from “the core” that wasn’t providing what he once did. Anthony Rizzo was still being Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez came close to winning his own MVP in 2018, Willson Contreras was one of the best catchers in the game. Bryant wasn’t around, and when he was he was a shadow of himself. It was easy to pin all the blame on him, and with blame comes ire. You heard all the normal words that get associated with players that have fans’ frustration land on them — soft, uncaring, overrated.
The other outcome, which might end up working out in Cubs’ fans favor, is that the injuries prevented the Cubs front office from trading Bryant, which they’ve had a chubby to do for a few years to avoid paying him. In the best of times, it would be impossible to get value for Bryant. It became even more so when he was battling injuries.
Which makes the next couple months agonizing and fascinating. Bryant is a free agent after the season, and extension talks with the Cubs have never left the toilet, if they’ve ever started. Thanks to the Mookie Betts trade, the Cubs have a pretty good idea what any market for him would be, and that market is dog piss. No team is interested in giving up top prospects, so unless the Cubs want yet another small collection of frozen embryos like they got for Yu Darvish (they totally do), they’re looking at getting back 25 cents on the dollar at best. Unless the only goal is to free themselves of the burden of having to pay Bryant, which has been the Ricketts Family goal on any major decision of late.
Bryant isn’t the only star the Cubs are playing chicken with, as Rizzo and Báez are also free agents after this season and Contreras is after next year. These aren’t easy decisions even for the most virtuous organization, especially as Báez has mostly been woeful this season and Rizzo is hitting .238.
Bryant is also 29, and teams are very wary of tossing the bag at players entering their 30s. Except it didn’t seem to bother the Dodgers when it came to Betts, and Bryant is one of the few players on Earth who can argue he’s a peer of Mookie’s. Considering that he’s still getting to fastballs and still effective up in the zone, it doesn’t figure that Bryant will fall off a cliff come his 30th birthday. It’s hard to predict what the market will look like with a new CBA coming, but would a five-year deal be so ridiculous for a player like Bryant? Even seven years and you have to just survive the last couple?
The real question for the Cubs, of which Cubs fans know the answer and causes them to rain tears into their Old Style, is that if you won’t pay Kris Bryant, who will you pay? If a generational talent isn’t worth the investment, then what is?