Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep No. 1 Contenders: How much can Kris Bryant grow? – CBSSports.com

Chances are, someone besides Mike Trout is going to finish as the No. 1 hitter in Fantasy baseball this season. As brilliant as he is, Trout has only finished as the No. 1 hitter in Roto leagues in two of his five full seasons in the majors, though no player has topped him twice in that span.

With that in mind, this preseason series is going to look at the seven players with the best chance to finish ahead of Trout in 2017. We’ll look at the path that could take them to the No. 1 spot, as well as the potential pitfalls along the way.

Let’s look at last year’s National League MVP: Kris Bryant.

Path to Glory

I just want to start with a bold prediction, because it dovetails nicely with Bryant’s path to the No. 1 spot: Bryant has a chance to hit 60 home runs this season.

What does “a chance” mean? I’m certainly not predicting a 50 percent increase in Bryant’s home run total, but I am saying there is a non-zero chance. More than zero, less than 10 percent, I would say. It would require Bryant to build on the improvements he made as a hitter last season, along with a pretty healthy dose of luck, but it isn’t crazy.

To start with, we need to look at Bryant’s dramatic improvement as a contact hitter in 2016. He dropped his strikeout rate from 30.6 percent as a rookie to 22.0, a pretty tremendous mark for a power hitter. We shouldn’t expect much improvement, not from a 6-foot-5 slugger with a 13.0 percent whiff rate. But if Bryant can just sustain last year’s improvement, that would go a long way. Bryant put 452 balls in play in 2016, compared to just 365 the year before. Every additional ball in play is one more chance for Bryant to put one over the fence.

Of those 452 balls in play, 207 were flyballs. Bryant’s 45.8 percent flyball rate was 10th in baseball, and this is where you really start to see 60 homers as a realistic possibility. Last season, 12.8 percent of all flyballs in the majors went over the fence; Bryant had the 30th-highest mark at 18.8 percent, with Ryan Braun leading the majors at 28.8 percent.

If Bryant hits the same number of flyballs this season as he did last, he would need a HR/FB rate of 28.9 percent to get to 60. Or, roughly the same ratio as Ryan Braun had last season. Given Bryant’s massive raw power, that’s not asking that much.

Like I said, there’s a chance. That’s all you can ask for.

What could derail him?

Bryant turned 25 in early January, which is an interesting time in a players’ development. He’s not quite so young that we should continue to expect exponential physical development, but obviously not old enough to be anywhere close to his decline phase. Bryant will most likely just make incremental improvements as a player for the next few years.

Naturally, there is never any guarantee of that. We tend to think of progress as being something linear, but it often moves forward in fits and starts. The end result might look like a straight line forward, but the journey is rarely that easy.

That is a fancy way of saying that Kris Bryant might strike out a bunch more next season. In the minors, he struck out around a quarter of the time, and his average over two major-league seasons is 26.0 percent. That feels like a fair expectation, if not a bit pessimistic. Bryant is still a huge dude, and it’s hard to cover the plate quite as well when you’re that big. Pitchers can find holes to expose in your swing, and it can be tough to adjust enough to avoid opening up another hole.

If you want to know what a worst-case scenario season for Bryant might look like, fellow Hulk-impersonator Giancarlo Stanton‘s 2016 season is an unwelcome reminder of all that can go wrong for this kind of player.

Chances he finishes as the No. 1 player: 3 percent

If you were designing a power hitter in a lab, Kris Bryant is probably about as close as the real world comes to matching what the ideal might be. He plays in what should be one of the two or three best offenses in baseball, and it’s not that hard to see him making that next leap.

A small power surge, or perhaps a few more stolen bases, could get him there. Or contact issues could keep him on the outside looking in.

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