We’ve now all seen enough of Kris Bryant and Addison Russell to understand just how special they are individually. To have them playing at the same time, on the same team, on the same side of one infield is a tremendous blessing; one we shouldn’t take for granted, as we may never see a left-side combination this precocious ever again. In February, we discussed BP’s controversial ranking of Russell over Bryant in their 2015 prospect rankings. It caused quite the stir among prospect pundits, with many calling out BP for their suggestion of Russell being the more valuable prospect between the two. Based on their rookie seasons, I deduced that Bryant held an edge—albeit small—over Russell given the minimal amount of major-league data we had collected.
Now that we’ve seen their rookie seasons, and are well into their first full season’s in the bigs, I thought it’d be fun to update their progress and see if anything had changed. Let’s break it down:
Bryant 2016: 151 GP, .282/.379/.539, 52 BB, 110 K, .343 TAv, 52.0 BVORP
Bryant career: 255 GP, .278/.373/.509, 129, BB, 309 K, .328 TAv, 110 BVORP,
Here’s a snippet of what I said regarding Bryant’s offense during his rookie season:
Bryant’s offensive effort in his rookie season has to be considered an unmitigated success. His BVORP of 58 lapped the field compared to his fellow rookies, with Matt Duffy coming in second while collecting just 35. It was also sufficient to place him seventh in all of baseball in the metric. That said, strikeouts—and specifically his swinging-strike percentage—remain a concern and something to watch, but really there isn’t too much to nitpick overall with his bottom-line statistics. However, shrouding his season are some bizarre anomalies. The first of these is his reverse-split, as he had more success against right-handed pitching (.875 OPS) than he did against lefties (.797). The 145 at-bat sample is just small enough to chalk it up to sample-size variance, so we’ll leave it here for now. Even more perplexing are his home and away splits, where at home he performed at an MVP-level (1.037), while in visiting parks he was essentially replacement level (.693)…we will continue to monitor this, and it is an issue I will readdress in a midseason update if the pattern persists.
If his rookie season was an unmitigated success, then his sophomore campaign has done nothing but build upon that reality. This season, he’s currently eclipsing his average and on-base by modest margins, but most impressively, his slugging has taken a huge .051 point leap to .539. He has equaled his home run total of 26, needing just 104 games to match the sum. His strikeout rate has dropped from 30 percent to 23 percent, an indication he has been successful incorporating his desired swing changes. His walk rate has stayed static at 11 percent, but the added amount of balls-in-play has allowed his on-base percentage to still rise by about 10 points. When you consider his BABIP has fallen dramatically from .378 last year to .326 this year, it’s highly impressive he’s still hitting for a higher average and getting on base more frequently as well.
We discussed his his 16.5 SwStr (swinging strike) percentage, and why it should give us some pause regarding the sustainability of his success. This season, the aforementioned swing changes have helped Bryant lower that number to a much healthier 13.7 percent. We also discussed some strange facts about his rookie campaign—reverse-handed splits and home/road splits—before deciding we needed more data to truly analyze whether there was anything to be learned from them. This season (not surprisingly) has seen an abject reversal of both trends. Against lefties this season, he’s been an absolute monster, hitting 10 home runs in just 121 at-bats, en route to a 1.010 OPS. Compare that to his pedestrian .797 OPS last year, and it’s maybe safe to say his 2015 line was a fluke. We find a similar story looking at his home/road splits, where his replacement-level .693 OPS from last year has turned into an MVP-level .992 OPS this year. So there you have it, both anomalies can likely be tossed into the “sample size” garbage bin.
In totality, Bryant has emerged as one of the 6-8 best hitters in the game. It seems likely to me that the BABIP disparity between 2015 and 2016 is actually shrouding people’s understanding of just how tremendous of a step forward he has taken at the plate. If he can get hot for the final two months of the season, he has a chance to hit 40 home runs and win the MVP. Not bad for a 24-year-old in his second season.
Russell 2016: 101 GP, .241/.329/.401, 41 BB, 99 K, .275 TAv, 20.7 BVORP
Russell career: 243 GP, .242/.316/.394, 83 BB, 248 K, 31 BVORP
The presesason blurb regarding Russell’s offense:
We have to assess Russell’s results with substantially more nuance than Bryant’s, as the brilliance of his power does not overwhelm his bottom line as it does with Bryant. Despite the relatively modest 10.3 BVORP total, his combination of power (43 extra base hits) and patience (42 walks) belied the fact that he played his rookie season at the tender age of 21. There is no coincidence that his second half exhibited significant strides made at the plate, as he cut his strikeouts from 83 to 66, and pulled his OPS up from .650 to .744 in the process. As with Bryant, the strikeouts remain reason for pause, but they are likely more the result of a patient approach and a propensity to work deep counts than they are a debilitating issue. In many ways, Russell’s offensive ability has become one of the forgotten assets of this team, but I didn’t see anything last year to dissuade me from believing he can be the offensive force he was throughout his minor-league career. Whether it’s this year or further down the road, I believe Addison Russell will shock some people when he posts a glittering offensive season.
In a similar capacity to the nuance we needed to assess Russell’s rookie season, we need to apply the same effort to the gains he’s made this year. It’s tempting to look at the very similar batting average and slugging numbers he’s put up in 2016 and consider it a wash, but the gains Russell have made instead fall into the patience department—a wonderful sign for a very young player. Last season, Russell walked at an eight percent clip, certainly not bad for a rookie shortstop. However, this year, he’s elevated that number to 10 percent, an excellent rate for someone of his experience. He’s combined that with a four percent reduction in strikeout rate (28 last year compared to 24 this year), and is just one home run short of equaling his 2015 total of 13. He’s got an outside shot at 20, which may not seem like a lot in today’s homer crazed game, but keep in mind he’s still just 22 years old. His .275 TAv is being underappreciated if you ask me, as he’s suffering from a 26 point BABIP drop (.324 in 2015 to .298 this year) in a similar way to Bryant. At the end of the day, I still believe the sky is the limit for Russell’s bat. He’s one “click” from a breakout season.
Edge: Bryant, but no slight to Russell, as Bryant is two years older and is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season.
Bryant 2016: 69 GP at third base, 39 GP in left field, also appearances in right field, center field, first base and shortstop
2016 FRAA: 3.2
Career FRAA: 0.7
Well, it’s safe to say I was wrong about Bryant’s defense. Coming out of college, I believed his height would ultimately be his undoing at third base, forcing a transition to the outfield sooner rather than later. This season has seen him transition to the outfield quite often, but for reasons far from any inadequacy at third base. Instead, we’re witnessing a solidly above-average defensive third basemen, with excellent hands and an absolute cannon of an arm. I still believe his height somewhat limits his mobility, but his length may be a factor in creating that illusion. His length also serves to mitigate a portion of that disadvantage, as his long limbs allow him to reach balls that may skip past other players. His hands have proven to be excellent, and the numbers bear that out with just eight total errors committed this season. His arm is his second best tool (to his power), and is one of the strongest in the league. He has also mostly curtailed his tendency to pull Anthony Rizzo towards the home side of first base, which helps eliminate one of the more dangerous situations in the game.
Now, all of that is well and good, but by far the most impressive part of Bryant’s defensive game is his versatility. The only position (besides catcher and pitcher) that Joe Maddon has not placed him at this year is second base, citing the potential for injury because of Bryant’s height. It’s one thing for your manager to move you around, but it’s entirely another for him to do it with confidence, and to also achieve solid results at every position. He has passed every eye-test this year, and the FRAA metrics agree, giving him a solid 3.2 runs above-average mark.
Russell 2016: 99 GP at shortstop
2016 FRAA: -2.0
Career FRAA: 2.3
Remember when Russell was a second basemen because Starlin Castro was on the team? It’s hard to believe that was only a year ago, but here we are. It’s a different story this year, as despite the presence of the unicorn Javier Baez on the team, Russell is firmly entrenched at shortstop. So much so, that Russell hasn’t made a single appearance at another position, despite his obvious capability and athleticism to play anywhere on the diamond. It says something about his defensive ability that on a Joe Maddon managed team, Maddon has never seen it fit to move Russell off shortstop for even a single inning. A brief reminder of why that may be:
Now, you’re probably wondering why Russell’s FRAA is negative this year, and you’re not alone. Cubs fans are treated to a spectacular play seemingly every night, and his error total of 10 is fairly normal. My suspicion is that his range has been dinged in the FRAA totals, and I admit he probably does have slightly below-average range. I personally would also rate his arm as below-average, but I believe his excellent hands and incredible athleticism more than make up for each of these weaknesses. Truly, Russell is a big part of the overall success that the Cubs’ pitching and defense has enjoyed this year.
Edge: Still Russell, as his athleticism would surely allow him to be every bit as versatile as Bryant, if given the opportunity. Bryant has closed the gap significantly, though.
Bryant 2016: 7 SB, 3 CS, 2.3 BRR
Bryant career: 20 SB, 7 CS, 4.6 BRR
Bryant’s athleticism stunned almost everyone last year, and his .378 BABIP was almost certainly fueled by how often his speed took opposing defenses by surprise. The league has adjusted, as they now understand that Bryant will bust it out of the box every single time, so they had better get the ball out of their hand quickly. This habit has continued this season, making it apparent this is part of the fabric of Bryant’s character, rather than just a rookie trying to prove himself to his manager. This trait—combined with elite athleticism—has carried Bryant to another season of creating valuable runs (2.3) via nothing but his baserunning, despite his modest total of seven stolen bases. Beyond the runs created, having your best player set such a striking example for the rest of the team surely has a trickle-down effect when it comes to the effort produced by each player.
Russell 2016: 3 SB, 1 CS, -1.3 BRR
Russell career: 7 SB, 4 CS, -3.0 BRR
For a guy that once stole 21 bases in a minor-league season, Russell continues to be a bit of an enigma on the basepaths. It isn’t that he’s a particularly bad baserunner, but rather he just lacks aggressiveness and an apparent desire to steal bases. Not blessed with great speed, Russell would need to rely on his impressive instincts to become a proficient base stealer, but his instinctual ability on defense has yet to translate to the basepaths. Overall, BP’s BRR has him ranked as a moderately below-average baserunner, but this is an area of his game I can see improving with repetition. It’s also possible that his repeated hamstring injuries have take a bit of his confidence on the bases away, so it’s possible that as he becomes further removed from those injuries and draws more walks, he may begin to regain his ability to steal bases.
Once again, Bryant is the overall winner. The combination of narrowing the fielding gap, and solidifying his baserunning edge actually give him a slightly larger edge than he had at the start of the season. This certainly isn’t disparaging towards Russell—who at 22 years old has made impressive strides this year—but rather a testament to how rapid Bryant’s ascension to becoming a National League MVP candidate has been. I don’t know about you, but I am simply going to sit back and enjoy watching these two make All-Star games together for the next decade.
Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.