The numbers for Kris Bryant are staggering. I would use the expression "video game," but what Bryant has done dwarfs what I ever did while playing The Show. One number that gets glossed over is 13. No, that is not his K%-BB% (though it is close). That is the number of errors that Kris Bryant has made so far this year playing third base.
As dominant as Bryant has been with a bat in his hand, he has been almost as bad with the glove in AA. As much as fans don't want to hear it, that is at least part of the reason why the phenom remains in AA today, and that is a good thing for the development required to reach his maximum potential at the major league level.
Defensive metrics are, simply put, not very good. The old standby of fielding percentage neglects the ability of players to get to a ball. The current in-vogue defensive metrics of UZR require over two years of data before they become valid and not subject to sample size errors. And, unfortunately, the defensive statistics that are available for minor league players include fielding percentage, fielding runs above average, and range factor.
Of the bunch, fielding runs above average is the best, but given the limits of each statistic combined with the small sample size, there isn't much that gained by looking at the numbers. However, I think it is informative to look at Bryant's fielding numbers in those areas compared to his peers in the Southern League.
Kris Bryant is in the bottom half of 3B in the Southern League in terms of fielding percentage and range factor. He is tied in fielding runs above average for third through fifth place out of eleven. What do these numbers tell us? The limits of the statistics available and the sample size do not allow us to accurately rate 3B defense to the well enough to rank them.
I do think they paint a pretty clear picture of a player not dominating the level in all areas of his game at the current time though. This is usually met by most fans and some analysts with one of two responses: either you can teach defense at any level or it doesn't matter because everyone agrees that Kris Bryant will eventually move off the position anyway.
The idea that you can teach defense at any level is something most Cubs fans should shudder at hearing. The exhibit A of teaching defense at the major league level is Starlin Castro. The parallels in terms of development are interesting, considering each had a bat that was advanced for AA (and probably big league ready in both cases) with obvious flaws on the other side of the coin.
Castro is still developing as a shortstop, and has made slow-but-steady progress that still has many fans clamoring for him to be moved off the position. Asking Kris Bryant to make the biggest offensive adjustment in his life by facing the most talented pitchers in the world on a daily basis while simultaneously improving a clear weak spot is a disservice to his development.
Coincidentally, this is why I am not in a rush to promote Kris Bryant to AAA. Bryant's makeup, as talked about here by Jason McLeod, is so high that he is not stagnating offensively while playing in AA. And lets be honest, AAA most likely is not going to challenge Kris Bryant.
AAA pitchers are made up of the likes of Casey Coleman (24th in PCL ERA), Kyle Hendricks (49th in PCL ERA), and the Chris Rusin (26th in PCL ERA). For every Andrew Heaney or Noah Syndergaard there are three or more junkballing AAAA pitchers. Add in the ballparks and summer months in the PCL, and I wouldn't be shocked if Bryant's offensive numbers actually improved by moving up to AAA. If defense is what Bryant needs to work on to become a complete player, then staying at AA is in his best interest. Let him get comfortable with the various different infields that he will play on and focus on becoming a complete player.
The other aspect of this is how many fans and analysts believe that Bryant will eventually have to move off the position. This could be due to the draft coverage floating the idea of having Soler and Bryant in the same outfield with their power potential and arms. Another aspect might be the common notion that Kris Bryant is too big to play 3B. That does not stand up to any sort of objective analysis as Beyond the Box Score looked at two years ago.
At 6'5" and 215 pounds, Kris Bryant is a tall player. However, the best defensive third baseman of my lifetime (Scott Rolen if you couldn't guess) stood at 6'4" 246 pounds. Troy Glaus, a player that I liked as a comparison for Bryant, stood at 6'5" and 220 pounds. Just because Bryant is tall does not mean that he is incapable of playing third base, as many good-to-great defensive third baseman could see eye to eye with him. So, clearly, Kris Bryant is not incapable of playing the position due to his physical attributes, but that does not mean that he will be able to stick at the position.
I recently re-watched the last three Tennessee Smokies games, paying particularly attention to Bryant's defense. Now, I do need to add in the caveats that I was watching on MiLB.tv, which many of you know has its disadvantages as a feed, and I am not a trained scout. That is one of the reasons I tend to lean on numbers when analyzing baseball.
All of that said, here is what I saw; Bryant made three errors in the course of those games. The two fielding errors involved him not being able to transfer the ball from the glove to the hand. He had another issue with the transfer that he was able to recover from and still make the play. The throwing error actually came on a beautiful bare-handed play on a bunt hit attempt by Rafael Furcal. Bryant made the play smoothly and the throw was on line but short hopped Dustin Geiger at 1B. It was a tough error to say the least.
His throws seemed to have a tendency to sail a bit. The positives were that he seemed to have no problem getting to balls and made a number of plays that required him to bend down or dive. While the rough edges were on display in those three games, I came away with the impression that he might be able to stick at third base.
Why is it important that he sticks at third? Why not just get him to the big leagues the quickest? The old adage of "if you can hit they will find a spot for you" seems appropriate in this situation, but the adage might not be the best case for the Cubs. The question comes down to the basic principle of scarcity.
There are more good hitting outfielders than there are third baseman. If you doubt that fact here are some charts from the Hardball Times that shows historically this has been fact.
The gap maybe closing between corner OFs and 3B, but it is still there. And this just makes logical sense since, after all, the discussion is moving Kris Bryant from the harder defensive position of 3B to a corner OF spot. That shift might still happen, but it is undeniably true that Kris Bryant would provide more value to the Cubs at 3B than from an OF spot.
Kris Bryant's arrival to either AAA or Chicago is a major hot button issue in Cubdom. Looking at the offensive numbers, it is hard to fathom why he is still in Tennessee, but baseball is not just about hitting. Kris Bryant would provide substantially more value if he was able to handle 3B and he is at the best spot right now for developing that skill.
There are service time considerations in play as well, and only the media facade maintained by all front offices in baseball deny that. However, there is a legitimate player development reason for Kris Bryant to continue playing in AA. Remember that the next time you see Kris Bryant hit another home run and just ask the question "but how is he looking at 3B?"
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