The Cubs Need Kris Bryant

How the former MVP is regaining his form.

Things aren’t off to the best start in the North Side of Chicago. At the time of writing, the Cubs are 5-7 and the offense has been a major letdown for the team. The Cubs offense is in the bottom part of the league in almost every major offensive category to start the year. The offense is off to a historically bad start, with only two of the Cubs regular starters registering a wRC+ over 100 in the first 12 games of the season. One of those players is Kris Bryant, the long-rumored to be traded, third baseman is off to a strong start to the year. While the Cubs offense will eventually turn it around, if he can continue to play at the level he is now, he will be the leading candidate for why the Cubs offense got going. 


The Hot Start


Kris Bryant has had inconsistent seasons that have been plagued by injury the last few years. He’s about 4 years removed from being an MVP caliber talent but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of some productive seasons. The key for Bryant, as with most hitters in baseball, is to control the strike zone and be healthy. One of those things is completely out of his control, so I’ll say is Bryant appears to be healthy and that’s a definite reason for the hot start at the plate. He’s battled so many injuries the past couple of years that it’s hard to know what he’s going to offer at the plate. 

For now, Bryant is healthy, and his plate discipline appears to be reforming. In 2020, he had the lowest walk rate of his career and the second-highest strikeout rate of his career. It was a tough year at the plate all around for Bryant. His approach at the plate wasn’t varying too heavily from previous years. His 30.3 O-Swing% was the exact mark of the 2018-2020 seasons on average. The biggest difference was he wasn’t making contact in 2020 the way he was in 2018 and 2019. His O-Contact% was 5 points lower in 2020 than the average during that stretch and his contact% was 2 points lower than the average during that stretch. When Bryant did make contact, it was a rare solid contact either. His hard-hit rate and barrel/PA were career lows. That’s changed in 2021. 

The main skill fueling Bryant’s hot start is the improvement in pitch selection. Bryant’s swing rate is up from 2020 and a little above his career average rate but he’s swinging at pitches he knows he can handle. He’s looking for pitches on the outside or over the middle of the plate while taking more pitches outside the strike zone. Here’s a quick GIF of his current swings by part of the zone followed by the xSLG in each area.


He currently has the highest zone contact rate of his career, and while that most likely won’t hold up as the season goes on, it’s a good sign for the former MVP. He’s refound his approach and that’s leading to great results. His expected statistics may not match up with his production, but Bryant has routinely outperformed his xwOBA in the past. His hard-hit rate, xWOBACON, and xSLG are all the highest they’ve been since 2016. All of this is a small sample size and could be noise but the new approach at the plate has got me believing in it. The Cubs are certainly going to need it as well. 


The Cubs Struggles


As already mentioned, the Cubs are off to a historically slow start on the offensive end. In their defense, they’ve had to deal with Corbin BurnesBrandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta multiple times. It’s going to be tough to score runs against those guys but even still, the Cubs’ offense looks lost. 

Cubs Offensive Rankings

There are a lot of factors at play for the Cubs’ offensive struggles. The first is the team is hitting a lot of ground balls. While Bryant is putting the ball in the air, the rest of the team is putting the ball on the ground. They have the 8th highest ground ball rate in the league according to FanGraphs. By line-drive rate, the Cubs are second to last. They are 6th in flyball rate but they will pop the ball up a decent amount too. The Cubs just aren’t getting hits because they aren’t making good contact. As a team, they are last in xwOBACON at .345. Admittedly, that is much higher than their wOBACON and the Cubs are getting a bit unlucky which is reflected in their dramatically low BABIP. 

The team has been disciplined at the plate but it’s not getting them a lot of rewards right now. They have the 17th best walk rate and the 9th best O-Swing% in baseball. They are also pairing that with the 2nd worst strikeout rate as a team. It’s okay for teams to be willing to take some strikeouts to maximize the approach, something that Kris Bryant does well. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. As a team, the Cubs are striking out a lot, and not making a great contact on a lot, balls that they would normally do damage on. It’s fixable, but they’re going to need help. 


Utility Option


When teams are struggling, managers like to give some lineup variety to try and see if someone can spark something in their offense. Guys move up and down the lineup, and sometimes different guys play in different spots. Kris Bryant offers some help to the Cubs in this regard. His everyday position is third base, and while he’s not a Matt Chapmanlike defender, he is a solid glove at the position. His early-season defensive numbers mean nothing right now so it’s not worth reading into those things for a few more months. David Bote is also an option to play third base for the Cubs and has shown that he is more than capable of playing the position in the past. 

If the Cubs were to call up top prospect Nico Hoerner, who is currently losing his playing time to Eric Sogard, then moving Bryant to the outfield might make some sense. He’s played there before and is about an average defender out in the left field. That’s not an endorsement of the Cubs moving him there so Hoerner can get some reps, but is there anything to lose at this point by letting Hoerner play second, and Bryant play left? An infield of Bote, Baez, Hoerner, Rizzo could end up being good defensively. With the offensive struggles at the plate, Hoerner might be the kick the offense needs. 

For fantasy baseball players, Bryant’s utility availability is a serious bonus when he’s hitting like he has early in the season. Slotting him in left-field can certainly be a serious help for teams looking for more offense out of the corner spot. Since he’s good enough in both spots, you don’t have to worry about David Ross and the Cubs management getting worried about his play in either position to consider pulling him from the spot. He’ll be able to maintain his multi-position availability all season long most likely. Well, assuming he stays in Chicago that is. 


The Future is Uncertain


There have been some tough years for Kris Bryant in regards to trade discussions. His name has been floated in trade rumors every off-season since the 2018 season it seems. He also had to watch arguably the best pitcher he ever had on his team get traded away while one of the pillars of the 2016 World Series team left to the Nationals because the Cubs never really offered him a contract. Bryant himself lost his grievance case against the team and lost a year of his career till he can get paid. His teammate, Anthony Rizzo, was unable to agree to a contract extension with the Cubs before opening day and may not return to Chicago as well. The Cubs are in a tough spot. 

While I fully expect the offense to bounce back, Bryant may not be on the team to help them make a playoff push. Cubs fans probably don’t want to hear it even though deep down they know that there is a world where he ends up on a different team this year or next. What’s the best fit for him? An expiring contract has not fetched the trade returns one would expect in recent years. My guess is if Bryant continues to play the way he is, people will say the same things they’ve always said when a player on an expiring contract gets traded. 

Early in the season, the Yankees starting pitchers have been unable to work deep into games and Clint Frazier has struggled opening up a possible everyday spot in the left field. The Yankees have maintained that Clint is the starter and I do believe them, but if the Cubs were to package Kyle Hendricks and Kris Bryant together, the Yankees make some sense as a possible destination. They are not of the same caliber players, but the Francisco Lindor/Carlos Carrasco trade is one worth revisiting to get a gauge on the price. Kris Bryant has developed an ability to go the opposite way consistently now, he could make good use of that short porch. Staying in New York, with the injury to J.D. Davis, the Mets may continue their interest in Cubs All-Star. If it were me though, the Cubs shouldn’t do either of those things, they should keep Kris Bryant

This article is titled the Cubs need Kris Bryant after all, but the Cubs should keep Bryant for the long haul and make a push to win. The team still has enough pieces on the offensive end to make a run at the division and once a team is in the playoffs, that’s all they need. The Cubs are good enough to win the division if they push for it and they should. Bryant is only 29, there’s still plenty of great seasons left in him to build a team around to compete and win. Baseball is a better sport when big markets like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are competing to win. The actions of the Cubs front office in the past off-season are bad for the sport and committing to their MVP and hero who helped bring them a World Series ring is a message that the team is committed to winning now and in the future. This team needs Kris Bryant and I hope the Cubs commit to that need. 

Photos from Kevin Abele & Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)

Max Greenfield

Former Intern for the Washington Nationals, now a Going Deep Writer analyzing the next possible breakout pitcher.

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