How Cubs star Kris Bryant got even better and became the NL MVP favorite
- Kris Bryant has been racking up awards on an annual basis since he was in college, and now Chicago's versatile slugger is on the verge of taking home another thanks to his work ethic and rapid improvement.
Kris Bryant gladly broke a team rule recently. Under orders from manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs were not supposed to report for work on Aug. 30 until 6 p.m. CDT, or an hour before they were to play Pittsburgh. Maddon ordered the respite after the Cubs played a five-hour game the previous night, which followed an overnight flight from Los Angeles that brought them home in the wee hours of that morning.
But there was Bryant, in workout gear and a bat in his hands, headed for the batting cage at 3:30 p.m., and this after he already had finished a one-hour photo shoot with teammate Anthony Rizzo.
“Bye. I’m going to get something to eat,” said Rizzo, who quickly changed into street clothes and left the park.
Said Bryant, "See, I can’t do that. I need to get here early. It’s just my routine. I like to get here, do my work and not be rushed. And my wife is happy to have me out of the house because I’d be anxious if I weren’t here early. Maybe someday I’ll be like Rizz, when I have a few years in. But for now, I like to be here. I like the prep work."
His diligence shows. There are no more higher leagues for Bryant to reach, but if there were, he’d probably dominate that one, too. Never before has anyone been honored so highly and so quickly as Bryant as he climbed the baseball ladder: 2013 college baseball player of the year, 2013 Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player, 2014 minor league player of the year, 2015 National League Rookie of the Year and, coming soon, 2016 NL MVP.
Rizzo is the glue of this Cubs team and is posting MVP-worthy numbers of his own, including a .291 batting average and 29 home runs. Daniel Murphy leads the majors in hitting (.347) and the NL in slugging percentage (.598) as the rock of a consistently good Nationals team. Corey Seager has hit .346 for the past three months as the Dodgers grabbed first place in the NL West. Nolan Arenado, who leads the majors in RBIs (120) and the NL in total bases (312), is playing superb baseball for a non-contending Rockies team. But Bryant—who is tied with Arenado for the NL lead with 37 homers and has a 156 OPS+—is on track not only to win the MVP award, but also to win it easily. He’s been that good for the best team in baseball.
Here’s the most impressive part of his impressive season: Bryant has made obvious improvements from his Rookie of the Year season, when he hit 26 home runs and posted a 135 OPS+. He is a player development dream: a great player who keeps getting better.
"Kris is a lot like Rizz," said Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer, "in that they identify areas where they can improve and they attack those areas. Rizz did it with his two-strike approach a couple of years ago. And Kris has definitely cut down on his swings-and-misses at the top of the zone. He made it a point starting in spring training to level off a little more on balls up, and it shows. We just ran some numbers the other day on pitches in the upper third of the zone and there’s a lot less swing-and-miss in his game there."
Last year Bryant whiffed on 17.9% of his swings on pitches in the top third of the strike zone and above. This year he has cut that whiff rate to 12.4%.
Bryant’s swing has not fundamentally changed. He still swings with a high launch angle and aims to hit the ball in the air. His fly-ball rate this year (46%) is almost exactly the same as last year (45.2%). But the commitment to make more contact on high pitches has paid off. Take a look at the obvious improvements Bryant has made this year as a situational hitter, first with the improvements in two notable categories, strikeout rate and contact rate.
Here's the change in hitting with two strikes.
Here it is when behind in the count.
The Cubs are a more dangerous postseason team this year for a few reasons. For one, starting pitchers Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester will be rested heading into October, and No. 3 starter Kyle Hendricks is the X-factor who can out-pitch any team’s ace. For another, Chicago is a better situational hitting team. The addition of off-season–free-agent signing Ben Zobrist to the lineup and a major swing change by Addison Russell (a strong leg kick to better drive the ball) will help the Cubs be better equipped to face postseason pitching.
The best place to start when talking about Chicago's improvement, though, is with the fact that Bryant is an even more dangerous hitter than he was in 2015.
Velocity—even when elevated—doesn’t bother Bryant. He has become the best fastball hitter in the big leagues: He is batting .340 with 26 home runs off two- and four-seam fastballs. He is a .245 hitter with 11 homers off all other pitches, with particular trouble against changeups (.167, two home runs).
"I feel like I’m light years ahead of where I was last year against changeups," said Bryant, though his batting average against the pitch was better in '15 (.242). "I really didn’t have a clue last year. This year I feel like the more changeups I see the more comfortable I get. And I really believe it’s just a matter of seeing more changeups. I mean, growing up, whether it’s high school or college, or even in the minor leagues, you don’t see a lot of great changeups or especially right-on-right changeups—if ever—or changeups in fastball counts. It’s something that you see on the big league level."
As for the MVP award, Bryant will win it in part because he was custom-made for Wins Above Replacement, the metric even old school baseball writers are adopting—and often misusing. WAR is not a measurement; it’s an approximation, a handy rule of thumb to try to roll all of a player’s contributions into one number. Yet media people misuse it as a counting stat, like hits or home runs, to mistakenly separate players by tenths of a win.
Bryant’s versatility has a greater influence on his WAR than Rizzo’s steady play at first base. WAR doesn’t particularly reward first base play anyway, and Bryant may win the home run title while seeing time at six different positions (in order of games played: third base, leftfield, rightfield, centerfield, first base and designated hitter). Here's an actual statistic that may also influence the vote: Rizzo has batted with 67 more runners on than has Bryant, including 44 more with runners in scoring position. Despite that discrepancy, Bryant has just four fewer RBIs (94) than Rizzo (98).
Finally, don’t ignore Bryant’s base running when it comes to the MVP vote. Bryant, at 6'5", will join Von Hayes (107 runs in 1986) and Frank Thomas (106 runs in '94), both of whom are also 6'5", as the tallest players to lead the league in runs scored. Bryant already has scored 113 runs, eight more than Arenado, the second-place player.
"Other than someone like [Reds centerfielder] Billy Hamilton, a pure speed guy, Kris is as good a base runner as there is," Hoyer said. "He’s so smart, gets great jumps and he’s always looking to take the extra base."
Bryant leads the majors in going from first to third on a single (20 times) and is second to Jake Lamb of Arizona at getting home from second on a single. Yes, those base running stats, like RBIs, are somewhat lineup-dependent, but just watch Bryant run the bases and you see he has exceptional speed, cuts the bags well and makes good decisions.
Until Bryant came along, only three third basemen ever led the league in runs and home runs in the same year: Mel Ott (1938, his only year as a regular at third), Al Rosen ('53) and Alex Rodriguez (2005 and '07). But all of them—the latter two of whom won the AL MVP award in those seasons—were at least 29 years old and deep into their careers when they reached such a height. Bryant is a prodigy; he is still just a 24-year-old major league sophomore. With his work ethic and talent, it’s easy to envision him competing for multiple MVPs.