It was fairly easy to decide who should get the third Pod Projection treatment of the 2016 preseason. The second overall pick in the 2013 June Amateur Draft, Kris Bryant shot through the minor leagues after destroying minor league pitching and finally made his highly anticipated debut in 2015. He didn’t disappoint, as he posted a .371 wOBA and performed exactly as we expected – lots of swings and misses resulting in strikeouts, a strong walk rate, and excellent power.
Naturally, fantasy owners are expecting the sun, the moon, and the stars from him in 2016, as his NFBC ADP currently sits at 11th overall. He has been selected as early as fourth (!!!!!) and as late as 22nd. Are they crazy for their super optimism, or justified to believe an offensive explosion is on its way?
Plate Appearances: 661
He’s set to hit clean up in what looks to be a stacked Cubbies lineup. Obviously, he’ll be one of the few hitters not moving around the diamond in Joe Maddon’s positional carousel.
Bryant posted an identical 14.5% walk rate at both Double-A and Triple-A in 2014, supporting his 11.8% mark in his Cubs debut. However, he actually swung at more pitches than the league average last year, and was just about average swinging at pitches outside the zone. Surprisingly, he wasn’t even intentionally walked once, so you can’t point there for inflating his walk rate. While he may very well become more patient in his sophomore campaign, I figure a forecast for some slight regression is the safe bet.
Bryant struck out 26.6% of the time in the minor leagues, which was high, but not yet dangerous given his massive power. His strikeout rate jumped during his time at Triple-A, and not surprisingly bounced even higher with the Cubs. His 16.5% SwStk% was the fourth highest mark among qualified batters. We know that making contact is not Bryant’s strong suit, so the question is simply how much, if any, improvement will he make this season. Young players typically reduce their strikeout rates early in their careers, so I’m betting on Bryant getting his strikeout rate closer to his Triple-A mark.
GB%/LD%/FB%: 37% / 20% / 43%
Bryant was one of the more extreme fly ball hitters last year, posting the sixth highest FB% among qualified batters. He was similarly an extreme fly baller in the minors. Any time you find a young hitter with a limited Major League sample to analyze post something at the extremes, the play is to almost always regress that statistic at least a little toward the league average. My projection doesn’t reflect a whole lot of regression, but does assume a couple more grounders at the expense of flies.
Here’s where things get debatable. Last season, Bryant posted an outrageous .378 BABIP, which ranked fifth among qualified hitters. That in itself isn’t too nutso. What is nutso is that his xBABIP was just .316. That’s an enormous gap! It was actually the second largest gap last year, as discussed in the year’s xBABIP Overachievers. There, I made the following comments:
There’s little, if any, chance he repeats that BABIP. Here’s the deal — you can’t hit fly balls as often as he does and also sustain a high BABIP. Take a look at the top 20 in FB% last year and then observe their BABIP marks. Bryant’s mark sticks out like a sore thumb, outperforming everyone in the group by a significant margin. Only six (including Bryant) of the 20 in the group posted a league average BABIP (which was .299 in 2015) and only one other, besides Bryant, posted a mark above .319. Sure, he’s posted sky high BABIP marks in the minors, but extreme fly ball hitters simply don’t post inflated BABIP marks.
I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and not regress his BABIP all the way down to his .316 xBABIP. I still consider minor league BABIP as part of his body of work, which leads me to believe he may have at least some sort of abilities not captured in the formula. But even a .330 BABIP would be super high for a batter that hits as high a rate of fly balls as Bryant does.
HR/FB Ratio: 18.0%
If there was anything disappointing about Bryant’s debut, it was certainly the power. Sure, a .213 ISO and 15.8% HR/FB rate were well above league average and fantastic, especially for a rookie. But that it came from a hitter with 55/70 Game Power and 75/80 Raw Power scouting grades and ISO marks that never fell below .324 at any minor league stop, it felt lackluster. And indeed, perhaps he was a bit unlucky, as his xHR/FB rate sat at a more robust 17.9%. His career minor league HR/FB rate was 24.7%. I think it’s fairly easy to make the call that his home run power and overall power should rise this season. I can even understand those who expect him to cross the 20% threshold, but I am simply unwilling to be that aggressive with my projection, or it’ll look more like a best case forecast.
Runs and RBI: 86 and 96
In a lineup where he’s slated to hit behind some strong on base percentages, Bryant is in a prime position to both knock runners in and score runs. Unfortunately, all those strikeouts will make it questionable as to whether he breaches the 100 RBI barrier. He came as close as you can last year with his 99, but that was the direct result of leading baseball in my proprietary RBI/BIP metric. I’m not projecting him to lead baseball again, or come close to that level. However, an increased rate of homers should offset some of the projected decline in the RBI/BIP metric.
Joe Maddon loves to run and Bryant clearly got a boost from Maddon’s running ways. I think that should ensure he remains in double digits. However, I’m a bit nervous that the loaded Cubs lineup is going to keep them from running as wild on the bases this season. So I’m projecting a bit of a decline from last year.
Below is my final projected fantasy batting line, along with the other systems for comparison.
We’re all fairly similar in terms of home runs, while I’m the low man on the stolen base totem pole. But as expected, the big discrepancy is in the BABIP. I’m easily the lowest of the four projection sets. Obviously, we don’t know if I’m wrong or the others will be proven wrong, but being the outlier is the result of being armed with more data that I am fairly certain the other systems aren’t accounting for. It highlights the risk here, because Bryant would need a .330 BABIP just to hit .258. I think the potential he becomes a real batting average drag is being ignored by drafters, which explains why he’s being selected so early.
Am I being too harsh here or do you agree with my forecast? What do you project for Kris Bryant in 2016?
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.