Is Kris Bryant becoming an elite defender?

When the discussion surrounds the Chicago Cubs, it most often veers directly toward their offense. And rightfully so. Not only do the Cubs have a historically impressive stable of former offensive prospects making their presence felt at the big league level, they’ve added pieces like Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist in the last couple of years that really establish this team as the dominant force in the National League, at least from that offensive perspective.

What isn’t discussed nearly enough, however, is their ability to field the ball. While there are some shortcomings in the field, they spent big money to upgrade in the outfield with Jason Heyward, adding him to an improving Dexter Fowler, and an infield that features a couple of elite defensive players in Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo. And on a team that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what they accomplish with the leather, Kris Bryant stands out as a guy who not only excels with the stick, but with his glove as well.

Bryant has been forced to demonstrate his versatility this season, primarily thanks to the ACL injury to Kyle Schwarber that will keep him out for the entire 2016 season. As such, we’ve seen plenty of Javier Baez at third base, as well as Tommy La Stella, and a fair amount of Kris Bryant in either of the corner outfield spots. As he spends more time developing and establishing himself at the big league level, it’s becoming more and more clear that we’re looking at a guy who not only has the chops to become an elite offensive player, but one who could very well be a force with the glove as well.

And that’s true whether he sticks at the hot corner or ends up transitioning to the outfield full-time at some point in his career.

It’s always important to take defensive metrics with a certain-sized gain of salt, as they continue to demonstrate their imperfections depending on the player and position. It’s even more difficult to put too much stock in them when we’re just about at the two month mark. In Bryant’s case, though, it’s becoming evident that we’re seeing enough to declare this guy a very good, if not potentially elite (someday), defensive player.

That’s an interesting claim to make, too, given that his defense was one of the knocks on Kris Bryant as he rose through the minor league ranks for the Cubs. Some wondered if, at 6’5″, he’d be too tall to stick at third base. And then, of course, there’s always the question of transitioning a player to a new position. Bryant has managed to inject doubt into each of those claims.

Looking at third base specifically, since the beginning of the 2015 season (in order to give us a more appropriate sample to work with), Bryant ranks eighth in FanGraphs’ Def rating, at an 11.4 figure. Revised Zone Rating (RZR) is a lesser-utilized defensive metric, but measures the ability of a player to convert balls hit into his “zone” into outs. That number is a bit wonky for third basemen because of the number of balls that end up scorched through what would end up being considered their zone, but Bryant’s .731 mark ranks ninth among those that man the hot corner.

More commonly used, his UZR per 150 games is at 8.5, good for seventh among that group. In not using the “per 150” qualifier, Bryant sits at a mark of 9.0, which ranks eighth among that group and puts him just one notch below “Great”, as far as FanGraphs would go. He has three Defensive Runs Saved since the beginning of the 2015 season as well. Metrics to measure his arm strength, but a quick couple innings spent watching Bryant at third indicates that he has as strong an arm as anyone at the position.

When you consider some of the players in front of him on that leaderboard, it perhaps becomes even more impressive. The likes of Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Mike Moustakas, and Nolan Arenado are some of the very best defensive players in the game, regardless of position. To rank just a notch below that group of guys speaks to the developing defense that Bryant has demonstrated and gives us an indication of where his game could continue to go as he spends more time in the field.

Even if he doesn’t stick at third and ends up in an outfield corner, one would imagine that the Cubs would be just fine with him out there. This season, Bryant has only spent four less innings in the outfield than at third base (185.2 vs. 189.2). He has spent 137.1 of those in left, and the other 48 in right. There was also some time in centerfield in 2015, to the tune of 18 innings, but that’s not a development that anyone would necessarily expect to continue, as his body time and actual range much more realistically favors a corner OF spot.

The success that Bryant has experienced defensively at third base has translated into additional success in the outfield. His UZR over this season-and-two-months in the outfield is at 2.9, with a 17.4 mark in regard to his UZR/150. He has an additional three DRS in the outfield, and has yet to commit an error in 2016. A quick eye test would also indicate that Bryant is athletic and moves well enough to stick in the outfield long-term, if that were an avenue that the Cubs were willing to explore.

Ultimately, we don’t know where Bryant will end up in the distant future. For the Cubs, his versatility has been a welcome presence this year, as it’s allowed Joe Maddon to experiment with a lot of different looks in the field, specifically in getting Baez and La Stella into the lineup with any sort of regularity. But for a player who made his name with what he brings with the bat, we’re seeing Kris Bryant develop into a completely well-rounded player capable of making an obscene amount of noise at the plate, but also providing the steadiest of gloves in the field, regardless of his position.

**Statistics via FanGraphs

About Randy Holt

Spending his days as an English teacher, Randy spends his afternoons, nights, and weekends as a writer on the Bloguin Network, as well as SB Nation. He is a staff writer for both Puck Drunk Love and The Outside corner, as well as Second City Hockey and Beyond the Box Score on SB Nation, showcasing his love for both hockey and baseball, as well as run-on sentences. A Chicago native (and Phoenix resident), he is an avid Game of Thrones viewer/reader and lover of red meat.

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