A little over 3 years ago the Cubs drafted Kris Bryant with the 2nd pick of the 2013 First Year Player Draft*. He was considered either the top prospect or close enough to the top that few teams, if any, would have passed on him given the chance to take him that high.
It was somewhat surprising to see the Houston Astros pass on him with their top pick, but they saved some money by taking Carlos Correa. They chose to spend a bit more later on and Correa has become every bit as good as the Astros hoped. Mark Appel was taken first overall that year (corrected from original).
*Can MLB please change the name of the draft to MLB Draft?
The Cubs signed Bryant to the suggested slot of $6.7 million a month later and his professional career began shortly thereafter. In Bryant’s first full professional season he hit 43 home runs in 138 games between AA and AAA. He has a very good chance of hitting 40+ home runs in his first full MLB season. He’s already got 25, which is 1 shy of his season total last year. He was called up as soon as the Cubs secured the additional year of service time so he spent what is basically the full season with the Cubs, but technically, 2016 is his first full season in the big leagues.
Last year he hit .275/.369/.488 with a .371 wOBA and 136 wRC+. It was a fantastic rookie season that earned him Rookie of the Year honors in the National League. He was worth 6.5 fWAR, which I think surpassed even the most optimistic expectations. It was quite odd to see a Cubs prospect surpass expectations. It was a welcome surprise, but even the most optimistic had to be a little worried. Kris Bryant was striking out a lot. Despite the strikeouts, 199 of them in his rookie season, he was an outstanding and productive player in the minor leagues and proved to be just that at the MLB level.
He was helped out last year a little with a BABIP near .380. It’s fallen back to a more reasonable .315 this year. All he’s done this season is hit .286/.384/.578 with a .403 wOBA and a wRC+ of 153. He’s been worth 5.0 fWAR already.
The Cubs have 74 games remaining, which isn’t quite half the season, but I began to wonder just how good Bryant’s season may be in relation to this franchise’s best seasons by WAR. It’s unlikely Bryant will end up being worth 10 WAR, but it’s also possible. Bryant’s WAR at Baseball Prospectus (bpWAR) is 5.39. BP would have a different leaderboard since they use a slightly different way to calculate their WAR, but I just wanted to show that by at least one WAR measure, Bryant may well be on his way to a 10 WAR season.
That is, if we consider what he is on pace for and not what he’s likely to do. For example, it looks like Bryant is projected to be worth about 2.5 WAR the rest of the way leaving him just shy of 8 WAR. We’ll come back to this more reasonable estimate, but first let’s just be kids and imagine.
Rogers Hornsby‘s 1929 season is unlikely to be topped any time soon. He was worth 11.1 fWAR that year so even the most optimistic person would have trouble arguing that Bryant has much of any shot of catching or passing that. Hornsby’s 1929 season is the only one in franchise history to reach 10 fWAR in a season. Sammy Sosa came close in his memorable 2001 season (9.9). In 1959 Ernie Banks was worth 9.7 and in 1967 Ron Santo was worth 9.5 fWAR. Fergie Jenkins was worth 9.6 fWAR in 1971 and 9.5 in 1970. No other Cubs player has had a season worth as much as 9 fWAR. Those 6 seasons stand well above every other season by a Cubs player.
If Bryant puts together the kind of 2nd half that we hope he does, he very well could crack that top 6. Not only that, he could become just the 2nd Cubs player to crack 10 fWAR in a season.
I don’t think that will happen. If I had to guess, I’d say he ends up at around 8-8.5. Even if he reaches his rest of season projection, he’ll still finish with one of the best seasons for the Cubs since at least 1903. Here they are below.
- Rogers Hornsby: 11.1 (1929)
- Sammy Sosa: 9.9 (2001)
- Ernie Banks: 9.7 (1959)
- Fergie Jenkins: 9.6 (1971)
- Ron Santo: 9.5 (1967)
- Fergie Jenkins: 9.5 (1970)
- Ernie Banks: 8.7 (1958)
- Ron Santo: 8.7 (1966)
- Ron Santo: 8.5 (1966)
- Hack Wilson: 8.5 (1930)
- Fergie Jenkins: 8.2 (1969)
- Ryne Sandberg: 8.0 (1984)
- Ernie Banks: 7.8 (1955)
- Mark Prior: 7.8 (2003)
- Frank Chance: 7.7 (1906)
- Ron Santo: 7.7 (1965)
- Heinie Zimmerman: 7.6 (1912)
- Harry Steinfeldt: 7.5 (1906)
- Joe Tinker: 7.5 (1908)
- Ryne Sandberg: 7.4 (1992)
Kris Bryant is only 24 years old, though. If we limit this list to players 26 and under, it looks even better. You’ve got Ron Santo in the top two spots in 1964 and 1966 with 8.7 and 8.5 fWAR, respectively. Fergie’s 8.2 fWAR in 1969 is next and the only other player with 8 or more is Sandberg’s 1984 (8.0).
Bryant has a shot at having the best season among 26 and under Cubs since 1903.