Point-CounterPoint: Kris Bryant

Don: OK Steve, let’s continue our discussion of upgrading the offense. I think we both agree that neither George Springer or Marcell Ozuna are going to be signed by Rizzo.

Steve: Overall, Ozuna looks to be a very expensive designated hitter — although he could be the new Nelson Cruz.  While Springer would fit anywhere, the money just seems out of reach for the Nationals at this point.

Don: We’ve already discussed Nolan Arenado in Point-CounterPoint: Upgrading the Nats Offense and pretty much agreed it would be nice but terribly unlikely. And even more unlikely now that the Dodgers are supposedly interested in Arenado.

So let’s turn our attention to another possibility getting a lot of press right now: Kris Bryant.

Steve: I expect Kris Bryant to be the hottest rumored item and to be covered extensively as to whether or not he would fit in D.C. and the Boras-Lerner-Rizzo triangle makes it that more intriguing. Bryant was rumored to D.C. last year by Morosi and nothing materialized. One of my sources said that they have over two dozen names on their list and Bryant is one of them, but he also said that doesn’t necessarily mean there is a deal about to happen.  I get it. Bryant is a former MVP who had a big first half of 2019 for the Cubs but then started to slide in the 2nd half of 2019. If you look at his last 100 games, he was batting about .227 with diminished power.

Bryant didn’t forget how to hit, so is that shoulder injury from 2018 an issue again? I would be extremely nervous to spend $20 million for a guy who turned in numbers that were near identical to Eric Thames. Maybe this was just 2020 being a year where it wasn’t physical and was mental. We saw many good hitters with poor numbers. But you have to be prudent when you’re dealing with $20 million. Thames only cost you $4 million and that was upsetting to watch him hit .203 for the season. Thames actually was better than Bryant in OBP if you can believe that as Bryant finished with a .293 OBP.

We know Bryant had some nagging injuries during the 2020 season and only appeared in 34 games. So tell me, is he healthy?

Don: I hear ya. We need to make sure he is healthy. I’m not convinced that his shoulder injury is a lingering problem; likewise, I am not convinced that it isn’t. If you look at his splits for 2019, he had a noticeable dip in August and then rebounded a bit in September.

Steve: Actually recalling a discussion a year ago, his September was stronger but he also missed the last week of the 2019 season so those 60 at-bats were not much data to make a decision on. I had pause a year ago when discussing a trade. Now I’m more nervous. That is what we were betting on when Morosi put out this Tweet:

Don: Again, I hear ya. I’m concerned about that too. Clearly he was very good until 2020. So what happened in 2020?

In Phillip’s article Is there a ‘new’ Andrew Stevenson? I liked how he dove into the data and instead of focusing on a few cherry-picked numbers, he tried to come up with a reason for the numbers.  So I looked at Bryant’s 2020 splits to see if anything jumped out at me.

After looking at his splits for 2020, it appears he was not that interested in the season. That is just a gut-level impressions. And yes, it is based on not much data – but it is all we have for 2020. Other than lack of interest and injury, what other external factors could explain a big drop-off. He did not just forget how to hit. And injuries are something that can be checked out.

Now let me also add that if this drop-off is due to lack of interest, that does concern me. But I can also understand it and relate to it. I enjoyed watching baseball this year; but I really did not care about the results.

Steve: Results based on limited data are so hard to decipher. My issue is paying that type of money when there are other players who don’t have all of the same issues on performance. Honestly, if I picked one player who I would consider on a bounce-back trade would be Josh Bell. He would cost about 1/3 of Bryant and probably the same in a player(s) to be put in a trade. There is 2 years of control on Bell.

Again for similar money I could get Bell and Michael Brantley and Kevin Pillar all of the same amount. I would be thrilled with that package. Okay, maybe that trio costs $22 million, but about the same and then I am spreading the risk.

Don: Perhaps we can discuss Josh Bell later. Bell, like Bryant, had a lousy 2020. The difference is Bryant has a longer history of better performance. If anything is going to happen on Bryant to the Nats, I fully expect it will be within the next couple weeks. If that does not happen, perhaps I need to look at Bell’s 2020 split to see what jumps out to me.

Let’s get back to the topic of today’s post and let me explain some of the things that jumped out at me. And please, please, please, feel free to shoot these down if they don’t make sense to you.

Looking at his monthly splits, he got a little better as the season went on. Maybe due to the delay for summer training? Maybe his baseball juices got him going? Who knows?

Again, nothing to write home about in these numbers, but the trend is at least in the right direction.

Steve: The batting average clearly was up but so was the K rate and the power dropped. That is scary as heck. I just have a feeling he has a lingering physical issue. Great hitters like Bryant don’t just bat .206 in 131 at-bats (his 2020 total).

Don: With respect to Great hitters like Bryant don’t just bat .206 in 125 at-bats, I agree. But he did. So the question is why. Again it could be injury; or it could be explained by something else – which is why I am intrigued by what I see in the splits.

Scrolling down further in his 2020 splits page, I thought it was interesting that his BA of .316 when he swung at first pitch vs .161 when he took it. Perhaps an indication of being bored? I can imagine that if you aren’t interested in playing you are more likely to not swing. But then again, maybe this is typical.

I tried to compare this to his career, but it appears that Baseball Reference only started publishing this in 2020.

I checked four other players on this metric: Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Marcell Ozuna and Freddie Freeman. Juan Soto had a similar pattern to Bryant – BA was roughly doubled; Ozuna and Freeman were better on the first pitch – but not close to doubled; and Turner’s BA was similar. I picked these four as they were the 4 NL batting leaders in 2020.

Steve: That chart is eye-opening. Pitchers who throw the “Get me over” fastball on a first pitch are asking for trouble. Bryant sure did damage on first pitch swings. That’s the good news. The bad news is the line below.

Don: Next, he was much better with two outs as opposed to none or one. Did the desire to not make the last out give him some extra incentive?

His career splits on number of outs show basically the same results regardless of the number of outs.

Steve: I think part of the analysis is wondering how was he so good with two outs but not in other situations and maybe that is where a pitcher relaxed and he took advantage. That’s also where he drove in most of his runs.

Don: Likewise, when looking at his clutch stats, Late & Close is dramatically better. I won’t bore you with the comparable table for his career splits – suffice it to say that there is not a big difference for Late & Close.

Steve: Limited, data, but impressive OPS. Maybe it was more mental. It reminds me of Joc Pederson‘s stats. That guy is like a different player in clutch spots and postseason games.

Don: And the Late & Close performance is similar to his performing much better in the 8th, 9th and extras. And just as for Late & Close, his career numbers for later innings are consistent with earlier innings.

Steve: Certainly a huge difference in the final innings. But what the heck happened the rest of the game?

Don: Again, maybe he was not motivated?????

Moving on down his splits page, he was also much better against the AL Central teams than the NL Central. That could be because the pitchers did not know him, or maybe because he was more interested in teams he had not played against much. We see a similar pattern in the breakdown by ball parks. He was in the Kansas City, White Sox and Cleveland  ballparks. Yea, that may be park factors, but it may also be about being more interested.

Steve: Looking at those numbers, the White Sox should trade for him.

Don: Let’s not go there (trades with the White Sox).

And let me be the first to acknowledge that all of these observations are based on limited data and are subjective.

I have to add however that as someone who has had a long career in analytics, when lots of metrics can be explained by the same reason, it does reinforce that the reasoning might be valid.

Steve: Like I said, Bryant didn’t forget how to hit. This is a player who looked destined for the Hall of Fame until that slide into first base in 2018 injured his shoulder. If he gets non-tendered he will be a free agent now looking for a pillow deal to up his value. That could help an acquiring team IF HE IS HEALTHY. You have to like a guy playing with something to prove like Josh Donaldson in 2019.

Don: I agree. Suffice it to say that I am glad that Mike Rizzo is making this decision. Not you, or me, or any of our smart and insightful commenters.

I would think that Rizzo is not going to give up much in a trade. I am thinking Carter Kieboom. But do you think more is needed.

Steve: I think Kieboom is the most I would trade and if I gave him I would want the Cubs to eat part of his salary, otherwise I will wait for the non-tender or wait it out to see the Cubs get nervous. He clearly isn’t in their plans for the future.

Don: That is why I think that if something happens with the Nats and Cubs on Bryant that it will be soon. I’d be surprised if the Cubs non-tender him. They can give him away later if they really are desperate to shed his salary.

Steve: His agent is Boras. I do wonder. That is what is so intriguing about this. If the Nats got him and didn’t give up much I would turn into “fan boy” and celebrate it knowing Rizzo did his due diligence and this is the BIG RIGHTY BAT that the team needed to bat behind Juan Soto. Again, I wouldn’t give up much in trade because this is a salary dump type of trade. A non-tender would make him a free agent and then you can get creative with a contract so I’m hoping we get to December 2nd and the Cubs just decide to cut bait. Wouldn’t that be something!

This is interesting from Rich over at The Nats Report on Bryant:

From our perspective, one major subliming block that needs to be addressed is that Bryant only has one year left of team control. While this factor could lower the asking package for his services, if the Nationals could bring Bryant to D.C., the two parties should immediately enter contract negotiations and develop a long-term deal to keep Bryant in D.C. for the foreseeable future.   https://thenatsreport.com/11/22/2020/allnews/kris-bryant-to-the-washington-nationals/

Don: Right there with both you and Rich. Once/if a trade is worked out, actively pursue a longer term deal. No need to break the bank with a large AAV. Give him a longer term deal with a reasonable AAV and opt-outs. Hopefully Rizzo can come up with a number the Nats are comfortable with if Bryant does not opt-out; while at the same time motivating Bryant to prove he is worth more. Is 5 years at an AAV of $13M such a number? With opt-outs after year 2. And if we still have QOs after the new CBA, and he opts-out, offer the QO.

Steve: I am with you there on getting that AAV way down. By the way, I love the underlying stats you used. It looks like Joc Pederson. I think there are big game players and Bryant is one of them. I don’t think he wants to be in Chicago and has mentally checked out.

This back and forth was fun.

Don: Again, we agree. And perhaps other TalkNats commenters would be interested in doing a Point-CounterPoint with you.

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