I must be getting older, or more evolved, or both. Usually, when the Cubs crash out before the playoffs start (and you’ll never get me to say the Wild Card game is part of the playoffs, whatever marketing and branding MLB sticks on it—I am not one to take urine in the ear and conclude rain), it takes me a week or more, if at all, to watch the rest of the playoffs. The hurt and jealousy is just too much. I have to ignore it.
And sure, there have been pangs when watching the Dodgers or Astros, because that’s what the Cubs should have looked like. Were built to look like. Were meant to look like. And yet they didn’t.
And still, in this post-mortem state we’re in, I can’t get that angry. We’ve been over it before repeatedly. 95 wins. Chased down by the only other team that came even close to them in the National League. Then were forced to put their hopes on the variances of one game with an exhausted team.
But there’s one facet I keep coming back to, that I haven’t harped on as much as I probably should. The Cubs won 95 games with Kris Bryant hitting 13 homers. He hit three in the second half of the season. And yet the Cubs were still able to claw to 95 wins with everything else.
Perhaps a year of being in and out of the lineup and on and off the DL has dulled our appreciation of Bryant. So let me help out. The season that Javy Báez just had? The one that caused mass delirium amongst greater Cubdom and caused anyone uttering the word “Yelich” to be hissed at and cursed with various animal hooves and paws? That season that intoxicated so?
Yeah, it’s not even really close to the seasons Bryant had put up the previous three years, offensively. Like, Báez’s season would not even be average for Bryant. You’d almost be disappointed if that’s what a healthy Bryant put up over 162.
Báez’s 131 wRC+? Bryant eclipsed that in each of his first three years, doing so easily in ’16 and ’17 with 148 and 146, respectively. Báez’s wOBA of .366? Again, merely a small box-jump for Bryant, who was in the .390s the previous two seasons before this one. Báez’s 5.3 fWAR or 6.1 bWAR? Again, merely sneezes for Bryant, who eclipsed six wins each of his three years and was at eight in his MVP year. I don’t think I can stress what a miss this was.
So think of this team with Báez having that season, and then think about putting another Báez-plus on the team, and that’s what you missed out on.
Even when Bryant came back, he wasn’t himself. And he really wasn’t himself past May on, as he tried to gut it out through his shoulder injury. And it’s also easy to forget that Bryant started out as KRIS DAMN BRYANT in the season’s first two months.
Bryant hit .292 in April, and .281 in May. He slugged over .500 in both months. His OBPs were .441 and .368. His wRC+ numbers were 156 and 140. His wOBAs were.405 and .381. Sure, the Cubs were only 30-23 on May 31st, but that’s with Anthony Rizzo being modern art in April, and with both Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood doing Cirque de Barf in the rotation.
It’s clear something went off the boil for Bryant then, because he couldn’t catch up to velocity. In the season’s first two months, throwing Bryant fastballs was a bad idea. He hit .339 off them, and slugged .677. After that, those numbers dropped to .292 and .508, which aren’t bad, but we come to Kris Bryant for more than “not bad.”
Dig a little deeper, and you see the problems. Bryant went from whiffing on fastballs on 15 percent of his swings in April and May to 24 percent the rest of the way. His line drive rate on them dipped slightly from 30 percent to 27% percent. On sinkers, his groundball rate crept up to 54 percent from 48 percent.
What’s a little clear is that Bryant started to cheat a little after his shoulder starting barking. Before June 1st, Bryant’s whiff/swing rates at changeups, sliders, and curves were 29 percent, 34 percent, and 23 percent, respectively. After June 1st, they were 55 percent, 40 percent, and 44 percent. He also stopped hitting those pitches for line drives.
When it comes to location, it’s the same story. Before June, you had to go above the zone to get Bryant to swing and miss, or at the very least high and inside in the zone:
You just had to get to the top of the zone. Jamming him wasn’t the only way to get him out. Same thing for his contact on fastballs before and after he was hurt. Here are his ISO numbers by location before and after June 1st:
Not a lot to run with there, but Bryant clearly couldn’t square up pitches up in the zone. This isn’t to suggest that you should worry about Bryant. It’s clear he was bothered by something, and if he and the Cubs say it’ll be fine before spring training with just strengthening and rest, there’s really no reason to not believe them.
And not that they will, but you could roll out the same team with a healthy Bryant for 162 games, get pretty much what you got, and possibly win 100 games. It’s kind of that simple.
Maybe Bryant’s excellence looks so easy, or that there’s such an elegance to it, that we don’t really appreciate what it is and what the Cubs missed. Because it never looks like Bryant has to try all that hard. His swing, even when he’s sending baseballs to various Purple Line stops north, looks effortless. He almost caresses the ball with his bat before depriving it of its soul. Same in the field, where he never looks rushed, either at third or in left.
But let’s be clear: Bryant has a chance to go down as the greatest Cub of all-time, barring anything unforeseen. He basically already is. There’s never been a Cub like him. Even Williams and Banks didn’t start out like Bryant has.
So maybe take a second and consider what a lineup looks like with him at full health. Things are hardly broken around here.
Lead photo courtesy @Cubs on Twitter