It probably goes without saying that Kris Bryant has defied even the loftiest of expectations at the Major League level. Originally drawing comparisons to a player like Troy Glaus, Bryant has broken into a league all his own by turning in two of the best rookie and sophomore campaigns that we’ve ever seen. Of course, he’s primarily made his bones as a hitter, as one of the league’s most impactful bats. However, because he’s been such a stellar offensive player, there’s been a lack of proper attention attributed to how effective a player he’s been in the field.
One of the knocks against Bryant coming out of San Diego was actually his height at the third base position. At 6’5″, many wondered if he could stick at the position or be forced to move into the outfield. Not only has Bryant excelled as a third baseman, he’s showcased a level of versatility that wasn’t necessarily expected when the Cubs drafted him. In addition to third base, he’s appeared at all three outfield spots, started a handful of games at first base, and even logged an inning at short.
The numbers largely back up the notion that Kris Bryant is not only a high-quality defensive player but has the potential to at least rub elbows with the league’s elite in certain respects. Even more impressive is the fact that this is something potentially not only true of the third base position, but what he can do in the outfield as well. So while Bryant may not touch what the likes of Nolan Arenado or Manny Machado can do with the glove at third, that versatility and ability to play multiple positions so effectively could paint him as just as valuable on defense.
Baseball Prospectus’ fielding metric, Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) isn’t nearly as big a fan of Bryant as FanGraphs’ defensive metrics or just a general eye test. His FRAA in 2016 came in at 0.7, which ranked him 27th among players at third base. Seems a little light for a player who’s so brilliant with the glove.
Defensive metrics such as Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Revised Zone Rating (RZR) will provide us with a bit more perspective against some of his counterparts, both at third base and in the outfield. DRS measures how many runs above or below average he was as a defender. UZR provides a more generalized overview of how far or below average he was on defense. And RZR, in the simplest terms, depicts how often Bryant made the plays he was supposed to make within his “zone.”
First looking at the third base position, and starting with the latter of those three defensive metrics (RZR), Bryant finished 2016 at the top of the hot corner. His 2016 RZR came in at .767 and ranked 12 points ahead of the next closest player at the position. He didn’t quite showcase the range, as FanGraphs had him at only 23 Out of Zone plays made (which pales in comparison to many others at the position), but that statistic certainly indicates that if it’s hit near Bryant and he can get a glove on it, then he’s going to make the play at a higher rate than most of his third base counterparts.
While DRS and UZR don’t have him as a runaway at the position, they do have him as an above average defender. His four DRS ranked ninth among players with at least 850 innings at the position, while his final UZR for 2016 at 5.3, ranked seventh. That latter figure indicates that Bryant finished 2016 as an above average defender at the position. And given that our purpose here isn’t to declare Kris Bryant the best defender at third base, but discuss his actual defensive value, we’re looking pretty good so far.
So those figures love him at third base. But what about the outfield? Regardless of position out there, he’s going to be appearing in the outfield with far more regularity than we’ll see him at a position like first base, so it’s important to evaluate him there as well. Bryant notched over 450 innings in the outfield in 2016, and even with the return of Kyle Schwarber, he’s still likely going to get some innings out there.
We’ve seen him provide plenty of range (29 OOZ plays) and his arm doesn’t require a metric to prove its mettle. Using those same three defensive metrics, we again see Kris Bryant as an above average defender at a different position. He finished 2016 with a DRS of five at all three outfield positions. In a crowded field of 118 outfielders with at least 450 innings played at the position, Bryant ranked 36th in DRS. His 18.8 UZR per 150 actually ranked eighth among that same group. His RZR, at .947 in the outfield, ranked seventh. When you factor in a touch more range when in the outfield, his presence out there becomes more impressive.
Again, the purpose here wasn’t necessarily to stack Bryant up against others at the position. But tossing in his rankings among each of those positional groups certainly indicates something: Kris Bryant is one of the more valuable defensive entities in all of baseball.
Not only does he provide a steady presence at multiple positions, he has the potential to be an above average player at those positions. The list of players which that can be said for is quite short. At third base, he isn’t as flashy or as rangy as a Machado or an Arenado, but he has the steady glove and arm to compensate for a lot of things. In the outfield, he has more range than we might believe (for one, because of how tall he is) and showcased the same stability across all three positions.
It’s so easy to focus on what Kris Bryant does as an offensive performer, because he’s one of the very best in baseball at mashing baseballs. But perhaps he should get just a touch more attention for not only the versatility that he brings to the mix, but how effectively that versatility can be utilized wherever Joe Maddon chooses to deploy him.
**Defensive Metrics Courtesy of FanGraphs
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports