Kris Bryant at-bat during the 2018 season

The Clutchness of Kris Bryant

Being a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan and living in Illinois for most of my life until my recent move to Milwaukee I tend to be privy to more Cubs stuff than any other team. That means that even though I’ve written a bunch about the Cubs lately I’m about to write about them one more time, and then probably some more, who knows. Either way, the talk that got my attention this time out is the idea that Kris Bryant isn’t clutch. Yes, the perennial Most Valuable Player candidate who occupies third base isn’t good enough by some Cubs fans standards because he supposedly never comes through when it matters.

First things first, let’s discuss the idea of clutch. There are ways to measure how much a player helps a team to win and FanGraphs has tried their best to improve upon WPA, Win Probability Added, with their Clutch metric. The only problem is that I’m never going to be convinced that clutch is actually a thing. The best hitters remain the best hitters regardless of the situation, history has repeatedly shown us that. They don’t become magically better in tougher circumstances. David Ortiz garnered a reputation for being extremely clutch. He got lots of big hits in the playoffs. He did so because he was a great hitter in the first place.

With that out of the way, let’s get back to Bryant. To a rather vocal contingent of Cubs fans, it doesn’t matter that he’s slashing .286/.385/.532 with 26 home runs, a .246 ISO, a 3.2 BsR, and a 137 WRC+ for a total fWAR of 4.6. Those are pretty similar numbers to his 2016 National League MVP season. Yet, the cries of how he’s overrated and never comes through when it matters most can be heard loud and clear across Lake Michigan. I can’t help but hear those cries, so let’s look at how Bryant stacks up when it matters the most.

In 2019 Bryant has a WPA of 3.59. That’s good enough for 2nd on the Cubs, behind only Anthony Rizzo, and 16th in all of Major League Baseball. We’re not even going to consider his injury-plagued 2018 now or in any future discussion. Bryant was injured most of last year, of course, he wasn’t great. 2017 I’ll give you, his WPA of 1.80 was only good for 47th. When the Cubs won the World Series he was 34th at 2.22. His rookie season he was fifth in all of MLB at 5.95. Thes results all look favorably on Bryant, but they still aren’t good enough for the critics.

To get a little more granular, how are his raw numbers in high leverage situations? To calculate this I looked at the stats of all Cubs with more than 5 at-bats in high leverage situations in the 7th, 8th, 9th, or extra innings with 2 outs at the time of the at-bat. Bryant had 7 such plate appearances in 2015, hitting .333 with 1 home run. 2016 was much worse, in 12 plate appearances, he hit .143. In 2017 he hit .429 over 10 plate appearances, while this year he’s only had 4 plate appearances but is hitting .500 with 2 home runs. All total on his career, even including his well below standard 2018, the Cubs all-star third baseman is hitting .281 in 41 plate appearances with the above qualifiers. He’s hit 3 home runs, walked 11 times (3 intentionally), and has only struck out 7 times while contributing 14 RBI to his teams cause. For fun, how about these stats at any point in a game when the Cubs are within 1 run: slash of .281/.375/.506 in 1,657 plate appearances.

According to the actual Clutch metric, Bryant is currently 26th with a total of 0.71. He was in the negatives in all other seasons but in 2015 when he ranked 7th with a 1.67 total. Don’t let that stat fool you though, because whether good or bad I’m not really buying what Clutch is trying to sell. I do buy the numbers Bryant has put up in high leverage situations throughout the great majority of his career and especially in 2019. Maybe one of these days Cubs fans will appreciate Kris Bryant for what he is, one of the best in the game.

All stats current as of 08-24-2019

Lead photo courtesy of Charles Rex Arbogast – Associated Press

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Bill Thompson
Father (human/feline/canine), husband, Paramedic, Socialist, writer Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and Off the Bench Baseball; freelance writer at various online and print publications. Member Internet Baseball Writers Association of America & Society for American Baseball Research.

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