Cubs' slugger building on Rookie of the Year campaign; Rockies' Gold Glover has improved approach at plate
By Andrew Simon
Last season, the Cubs' Kris Bryant and the Rockies' Nolan Arenado both made an All-Star team for the first time as National League reserves.
It appears one of the two will have the honor of being voted in as the NL's starting third baseman for the 2016 All-Star Game presented by MasterCard. The question is which of the worthy candidates will end up taking the field at San Diego's Petco Park on July 12?
The latest 2016 Esurance MLB All-Star Game Ballot update, released on Wednesday, revealed that Bryant (1,629,623) held a lead of more than 450,000 votes on Arenado (1,166,247). The Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, who also has a strong resume, was a distant third with 424,794.
Bryant has the advantage of playing for a Cubs team that owns MLB's best record and has four players slated to start for the NL, while Arenado's Rockies are hovering around the .500 mark. But, in terms of individual performance, the two are extremely close.
Arenado leads the duo in home runs (20 to 16) and RBIs (57 to 46) heading into play on Saturday -- as well as batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, with a line of .287/.366/.586, compared to Bryant's .274/.362/.524. Of course, Arenado gets to play half of his games at Coors Field. Though his road numbers are strong, he has produced a 1.077 OPS and 12 of his homers at his high-altitude home.
One of the good things about a statistic such as weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) is that it adjusts for different ballparks, while condensing offensive output into one number -- scaled to a league average of 100. In fact, wRC+ erases Arenado's large advantage, nearly pulling him even with Bryant (135 to 138). Carpenter is actually well ahead of both, at 158.
Both young players have taken some impressive strides to put up these numbers.
At 25 and in his fourth season, Arenado has become much more patient at the plate, cutting down his swing rate and swinging-strike rate significantly. As a result, he has more than doubled his walk rate (10.6 percent), while slashing his strikeout rate (also 10.6 percent) by about a third. That puts him among the top five in the NL in walk-to-strikeout ratio, while his OBP has jumped nearly 40 points.
Bryant's overall production has been almost identical to what he did as a rookie (136 wRC+), but he, too, has shown progress in at least one way. The 24-year-old has walked a bit less, but he has also seen a much bigger drop in his strikeout rate -- from 30.6 percent to 22.3 percent -- thanks to making more consistent contact.
So the NL has two third basemen, both 25 or younger and both getting better, who are neck and neck at the plate. There is a significant difference in the field, however.
One complicating factor is that while Bryant is a third baseman on the ballot, he has played almost half of his innings in the outfield (mostly in left), while also playing a bit at first base and even an inning at shortstop. One could argue that versatility should work in his favor, but it also makes it more difficult to get a good read on his performance at the hot corner.
Clearly, though, Arenado has the edge in this department, after winning an NL Gold Glove Award in each of his first three seasons. With 12 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2016, Arenado now has 76 in his career -- by far the most of any third baseman over that span. The difference in glovework is reflected in the players' wins above replacement (WAR) totals, with Arenado ahead 3.1 to 2.8, according to FanGraphs, and 3.5 to 2.6, according to Baseball-Reference.
Still, those are not significant gaps, especially considering the small sample sizes involved. In other words, both Arenado and Bryant are fine choices for the NL's starting lineup, and both figure to end up in San Diego, one way or another.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.