Among the head-scratchers I've heard since mid-September from some circles around Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant: "He's not clutch." This is baffling, for a person who values baseball and language both in high esteem. I suppose people are allowed to use their definitions for a word, but this examines the bizarre clutchiness claim against the Cubs most recent MVP and Rookie of the Year.
Sometimes, loaded terms are tossed around in and out of baseball. One can be "plays the game the right way," which can be very dismissive of certain players. However, this doesn't seem to be an issue with Bryant. Some Cubs fans seem on the hunt for one of the best players for the team in a long time. Why?
Clutchiness, or a lack thereof, assesses how well a performer does in situations where the game lies in the balance. If a .570 OPS player hits at an .830 clip in key spots, he's generally a clutch performer. Flip it around, and he isn't.
Fortunately, Fangraphs tracks these things. You can argue their methods, but they break at-bats into low-leverage, medium leverage, and high-leverage. For the 2019 campaign, Bryant hit worst in low-leverage spots. He was better in 2019 in middle leverage spots than high leverage ones, but it was relatively close. Toss in that Bryant's ISO was highest in high leverage spots, and a heavy dose of selective memory is needed to justify the "not clutch" claim.
Two realistic possibilities exist. Some fans want to dismiss Bryant as "not what he's cracked up to be" for whatever reason. Not being clutch sounds just close enough to being accessible, while still being "favorite flavor of ice cream." Another is that people sometimes expect players to keep getting better. With a few beanings and back trouble, it's possible for Bryant to be really good, but not better than in 2016.
One other complicating factor is a wealth of third-base talent in the game now. Anthony Rendon is a better player than Bryant. The same might be true for Alex Bregman. Matt Chapman might wind up being the best of the four. The college ranks kick out "hot corner" quality every June, it seems. Teams almost have to have high production at third to compete. Bryant is in that range, but it doesn't mean he's going to outplay a six-to-eight year extension.
An in-vogue way of thinking seems to be, if he's leaving, it's important to have an axe to grind with him. I don't understand this thought process. Bryant exceeded your expectations for him on draft day. He was a Rookie of the Year and an MVP winner. His assist on a 5-3 grounder began a party. Whatever happens, I'm glad Bryant has been good as a Cub. Incredibly good, actually.
I wish him well, stay or go. But, then, to me, the jersey adorns the player. I cheer for players, not fabrics. Bryant has avoided embarrassment with the team, and has produced in the process. Use whatever terms you want, but he's among my favorites the last few decades. Sometimes, baseball is a business, and that reality swallows hard, on occasion.
Bryant might not always be the ideal hitter for every matchup, but he has entirely changed the expectation for a first-round choice. Draft selections are now considered possible regulars, instead of simple trade pieces. Bryant has changed the way you think about player development, for the better. He has done so, by playing better with the game on the line than in less important spots. His production in those less important spots has been fine, as well. I wouldn't be surprised to see Bryant traded this offseason. If it happens, I wish him the best continued success, elsewhere.
is it possible for you to prefer Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, or someone else in a certain spot? Of course. Does that disqualify Bryant from being a clutch player? Not at all. Can he have a bad stretch, especially when injured, and remain clutch? If clutch even exists? That’s to argue about, but I’m glad Fangraphs exists.