Award Watch: Why Bryant is deserving of Rookie of the Year honors

(Photo by Stephen Green)

A constant topic of conversation throughout the 2015 baseball season was the quantity of quality rookies scattered among major league rosters. The baseball world has seen its fair share of hot-commodity prospects make a splash in their debut seasons, but what made this season so unique was the sheer number of young position players immediately thrust into pivotal roles within their club.

In the National League alone, there were seven players who finished with an fWAR of 2.8 or better. Los Angeles’ Joc Pederson tied for the NL rookie lead with 26 home runs; Cubs’ infielder Addison Russell saved 19 runs according to Fangraph’s defensive runs saved (DRS) statistic; and the Phillies’ Odubel Herrera hit .297, the highest batting average of any first-year player with 500 plate appearances. None of those players were listed as finalists for Monday’s award. Instead, it was Giants second baseman Matt Duffy, Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang and Cubs slugger Kris Bryant.

The balanced Duffy did a lot of everything for his Giants club, hitting .297/.334/.428 with 12 homers, driving in 77 runs, swiping 12 bases and serving as a solid defensive player. Kang, who came over from South Korea prior to his age-28 season, provided a little more power and a little less speed, but was essentially the same player offensively, finishing the year at .287/.355/.461 with 15 homers. Both players should serve as key pieces of their respective clubs for the next few seasons. That said, both will likely finish runner-up to fellow nominee Bryant.

Fangraphs calculated the Cubs third baseman to be worth 6.5 wins above replacement, which was not only 1.6 higher than the next-best offensive rookie total (Duffy), but the fourth-best mark for a first-year NL hitter since 1900. It trails only perennial All-Star Dick Allen’s 1964 mark of 8.2 and a pair of eventual Hall of Famers in Mike Piazza (7.4 in 1993) and Albert Pujols (7.2 in 2001).

Bryant entered the 2015 season with more hype than any offensive player since Bryce Harper in 2012. Upon arrival, opposing pitchers approached the 23-year-old as if he’d been around the league for a decade, cautiously keeping balls away and in the dirt. As a result, it took 21 big league games for fans to finally see the prospect with an uncanny knack for driving the ball out of the park hit his first home run. But what took place in the 20 games prior demonstrated Bryant’s plate discipline, as he kicked off his pro career with an .411 on-base percentage, largely behind his 17 walks.

When the home runs started coming, however, they didn’t stop. Bryant wrapped up the season with 26 homers, a .378 on-base percentage, 99 RBI, 87 runs scored and 31 doubles; all best among NL rookies. His 77 bases on balls trailed only Pederson for the rookie lead.

The All-Star also demonstrated his ability push his way through personal slumps. After a tough July that saw him go .168/.270/.368 with four homers, he bounced back to hit .323/.400/.567 with 12 homers on the rest of the season.

Aside from his home run total, which tied him for 11th in the NL, the slugger thrust himself into the league’s elite group of power bats. His .488 slugging percentage and .213 isolated power percentage (ISO)—a statistic that indicates the number of extra bases a player averages per at-bat—were good for 12th.

Weighted runs created is a statistic designed to interpret an individual’s effort and quantify it into runs contributed to his team. Bryant managed to compile a wRC of 103, which ranked ninth in the NL and was a shade below Fangraphs’ estimated mark for excellence (105). His total is about 30 points better than the league-average mark.

There were other facets of Bryant’s game that quietly made him the Rookie of the Year favorite in 2015. Despite his 6-foot-5 frame, manager Joe Maddon regarded the young player as one of the best baserunners on the team. In addition to swiping 13 bases and only getting caught four times, Fangraphs’ ultimate base running (UBR)—a statistic that values base advancement and puts it into the value of runs—estimated Bryant’s heads-up approach was good for 3.5 runs, third among all NL players.

The big question mark entering the season (aside from when Bryant will come up) was where he’ll wind up playing defensively. Given his height, many believed it would be detrimental for Bryant to continue his career at third base. Balls get on defenders quicker there, and it can be more difficult for taller players to get down in time. But he managed to hold his own at the hot corner, finishing with an above-average 3 defensive runs saved despite 17 errors.

What was also exciting about his defense was his willingness and ability to play wherever he was needed. Seven games into his major league career, he was thrust into a start at center field, a spot he hadn’t played since college. In total, he had 98 errorless innings in the outfield, where he could see increased time moving forward.

The 2015 rookie class was one for the ages and one that will likely include All-Stars and award winners for years to come. But based on the 2015 season, nobody stands to receive more All-Star nods and award nominations moving forward than Bryant.

—Phil Barnes

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