Look, I’m a cynic. I feel compelled to mention that before I tell you that I think Chicago Cubs phenom Kris Bryant is overrated.
In case you missed it, Bryant went 5-for-5 with three home runs and two doubles in the Cubs’ 11-8 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Monday night. Bryant is now tied for the National League lead in home runs (21) and ranks 10th in OPS (.929). He’s only 24 years old. And he has the kind of raw talent that made him the second overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft.
He’s a good player. And there is every chance he is still getting better.
But here’s where I get off the train.
Baseball being what it is today — a mathematical analysis by people who evaluate players purely on paper — Bryant looks like a budding superstar, if he isn’t one already. As we all know, strikeouts don’t mean anything anymore. Neither does batting average. Naturally, these are two of the offensive areas stat geeks completely toss aside, because, well, it’s all about on-base plus slugging (OPS). When Bryant makes contact, the ball usually goes a long way. And that means production.
But let’s ask this question: if the game were on the line, would you want Bryant at the plate? Last year, Bryant struck out 199 times during the regular season. In the playoffs, he had 12 more strikeouts — and only six hits — while batting .176. (Four of his hits went for extra bases.) In the dreaded “close and late” situations, as defined by baseballreference.com, he is hitting just .205 this season (with a .659 OPS) and just .235 for his career (with a .783 OPS). Those numbers are well below his regular-season totals.
So here’s what I’m getting at:
Bryant is an easy out if you pitch him properly. He can’t hit good pitching.
Admittedly, so as not to incite the nerds, the idea of “clutch” is a very subjective thing. But if we can boil this down to an actual baseball discussion — an actual analysis of Bryant’s game — there are obvious holes. Bryant swings with one of the more vicious uppercuts we’ve seen since Mike Tyson. Nobody would ever teach someone to hit that way. And the best pitchers in baseball will find a way to exploit that, which brings into the question that very fine line between good and great.
Disclaimer: Mark McGwire never did it for me, either — steroids or no steroids. I always regarded him as a softball player, a slugger. Now Miguel Cabrera? He’s a great, pure hitter with power. Ditto for Manny Ramirez. Or Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Mike Trout. Players like that can be nearly impossible to pitch to because they have no real holes. But Bryant? Well, that swing makes him vulnerable, and good pitchers will exploit it.
According to baseballreference.com, Bryant is batting just .227 against power pitchers during his career. This year, the number is .233. And doesn’t it stand to reason that he suffers in those matchups because of that long, looping swing through the strike zone?
And then there is this: how has Bryant fared against the best pitchers in the National League? Against Clayton Kershaw, he’s 1-for-5 with four strikeouts. Against Madison Bumgarner, he’s 0-for-5 with two strikeouts. Against Max Scherzer, he’s 0-for-8 with six strikeouts. Adam Wainwright owns him (0-for-7). So does Zack Greinke (1-for-5, two strikeouts). If we want to venture into the American League, Bryant is 0-for-6 with six strikeouts against Chris Sale.
Add it all up, and here’s what you get: 2-for-36 with 20 strikeouts. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d say that leaves a lot of room for growth.
Look, I get it. If you’re a Bryant guy, you’re probably going ballistic right now. If you look anyone’s numbers against those pitchers, they’d seem just as bad! But is that really true? Bryant doesn’t just make outs against the best of the best, he fails to put the ball in play. In key situations, nobody ever wants to see Ortiz come up. Ditto for Cabrera, Pujols, Ramirez, Trout, Derek Jeter — the list is distinguished, but reasonably long. With Bryant, something suggests that Scherzer, Bumgarner and even Kershaw — whose big moments are similarly tainted — aren’t exactly unhappy to see Bryant to step in the batter’s box.
Could that change? Sure. But the kid really hasn’t even been close so far.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.