Everyone knew Kris Bryant was going to be good. But even those of us who formed the upper stratum of sanguine sentiment regarding his future never dared imagine he’d turn into one of the best players in the game in such short order. And he’s not just a ballplayer, either. Bryant is the face of several national ad campaigns and his sparkly blue eyes stare back at you from billboards, murals, and magazines.
To be quite honest, I was far more sure of his poster-boy appeal than I was his prowess as a ballplayer. Not that I felt the former would forever overshadow the latter, just that he seemed almost too good to be true. Bryant is like the prototype you’d market if you were doing a Kickstarter roll-out for a Build-Your-Own Face of the Franchise kit. Good looking, plays all over the field, doesn’t cause ripples off it. What more could you want?
Well, a lot of people wanted him to flatten out his swing to cut down on strikeouts. Done. And the abnormally high BABIP in 2015 was a sign that maybe a little regression was in order, so that was troublesome. Okay, he cut the BABIP by 46 points (.378 to .332) while increasing his overall batting average by 17 (.275 to .292). And the defense was pretty good, but he’d have to maintain that. No problem.
While it looked toward the end of the season that Bryant was pressing a bit to try to reach 40 home runs and 100 RBI, there’s no denying that he did a great deal more than just avoid a sophomore slump. Now the front-runner for NL MVP, the second-year star posted one of the best seasons in Cubs history. You may need to enlargify the chart below, but the highlighted bar tells you that the kid stacks up pretty well when it comes to the franchise’s best fWAR campaigns.
And you wanna know what’s even better? Bryant put up that 8.4 WAR with less experience than anyone else in the top 24 (I accidentally omitted Ernie Banks’ 1960 season because I was looking at the excel rows and going with 25 of those), which is no mean feat. In fact, only three other seasons (Santo ’64, Sandberg ’84, Banks ’55) were put up by a player with five or fewer years in the league. Oh, those guys were in their fifth, fourth, and third seasons, respectively.
But wait, there’s more. The average experience of the players on this list is 7.8 years, though that drops to 7.2 when you remove the seasons prior to Bill Nicholson’s 1943 campaign. Given the changes in the game and American culture writ large, that makes a lot of sense. If we assume that a player’s prime years are from roughly age 26 to 32, give or take a couple years here and there, Bryant could very well have several of his best seasons ahead of him.
I don’t want to avoid the Eeyore in the room, though, which is that most guys appear only once on the list above. So, yeah, I guess it’s entirely possible that 2016 will go down as Bryant’s best ever and it’ll all be downhill from here. Perhaps we’re doomed to watch him struggle through 7-WAR seasons in perpetuity, mired in a rut just shy of historical superiority. Woe is us. If you really want to get skeptical, there’s also the possibility that the Cubs don’t extend him and he leaves for a half-billion-dollar deal elsewhere (frowny face emoji).
On the other hand, a quick look at the guys whose names do appear multiple times tells us that Bryant is pretty likely to keep doing some really good things. Ron Santo, who shows up four times, did his damage in consecutive seasons from 1964-67. Ernie Banks appears three times from 1955-59 and his ’60 season was 25th with 7.0 fWAR. Sammy Sosa’s two seasons came within four years of one another. Only Ryne Sandberg’s top performances came with a significant gap between them (eight years).
Long story short, Bryant is on one hell of a steep trajectory that doesn’t appear to be in danger of leveling off in the near future. With a little more experience, more work on his swing, and maybe even the absence of some of the internal and external pressures to reach certain statistical milestones, he could well litter that list with even higher marks over the next several seasons.
Have fun with that, opposing pitchers.