Kris Bryant Has Quietly Put Together Another MVP-Caliber Performance
When talking about candidates for the 2017 National League MVP award, there are a number of worthy players to choose from.
Paul Goldschmidt has been a huge piece of the puzzle for an Arizona Diamondbacks team heading to the postseason for the first time since 2011, while Charlie Blackmon has put together an historic performance at the top of the Colorado Rockies' lineup. Giancarlo Stanton has racked up 57 home runs with 126 RBI and 118 runs scored for the Miami Marlins, and we haven't even mentioned guys like Joey Votto and Anthony Rendon, who are among the NL leaders with regard to fWAR.
You know who is outpacing everyone in the Senior Circuit in fWAR with a mark of 6.8 ahead of Tuesday's action, though? That'd be the reigning NL MVP, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant. Given the huge performances we've seen from other top position players, it seems as if Bryant has become a bit of an afterthought since some of his counting numbers don't even sniff most of the guys we just mentioned.
But if we take a look at the advanced stats, he's been just as good -- if not better -- for the defending world champs this season.
Another Year of Elite Production
It doesn't matter how good a player is, it's not fair to expect someone to repeat an MVP-caliber season (unless it's Mike Trout). Bryant's 8.3 fWAR from 2016 led the NL by a rather significant margin, and while he's not going to get very close to that number this year, he's still enjoying the second-best season of his (admittedly, very short) big league career.
Of course, the counting stats aren't there for the most part -- the third baseman slugged 39 homers with 102 RBI and 121 runs scored last year, but has "just" 29 homers, 73 RBI, and 110 runs scored with a handful of regular season games left in 2017. That won't help his chances of winning a second consecutive MVP award, but things like RBI and runs scored are typically out of a player's control.
After all, it's hard to drive in a bunch of runs if no teammates are on base, and you can only score so often if those same teammates can't do what's necessary to bring you home.
When we look at the stats that Bryant does have control over, though, it stacks up quite well with last season's MVP campaign. The below table shows how his OPS, Isolated Power (ISO), strikeout rate (K%), walk rate (BB%), wOBA, and wRC+ compare between 2016 and 2017.
As we can see, virtually off of these stats have improved from the year before. His power is down a bit, but that shouldn't be overly surprising after diving a little deeper.
Some Batted-Ball Challenges
Putting up elite offensive numbers in consecutive years is impressive enough, but it goes up to another level upon seeing that he's been doing it with a batted-ball profile that's much worse than it was during his MVP campaign.
The below table once again compares 2016 to 2017, but this time, it includes Bryant's line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%), fly-ball rate (FB%), home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB%), and hard-hit rate (Hard%).
While it's good that the difference in his hard-hit rate didn't go directly to his soft-hit rate (17.0% in 2016, 14.7% so far in 2017), it hasn't exactly made things easy for the 25-year-old.
And if we want to take a closer look at Bryant's performance on fly balls, we shouldn't be disappointed that he's not pushing 40 homers again -- we should, however, be impressed that he's on the cusp of 30. His 186 wRC+ for this batted-ball event would be a single-season career low, as would his 36.5% hard-hit rate (it was 45.4% in 2016). However, the biggest difference of all is that his pull rate on fly balls has dropped from 30.4% to his current rate of 18.0%, which mirrors more of what he did in his rookie season.
The Second-Half Surge
It's hard to believe that a player who racks up a 141 wRC+, .391 wOBA, and a 3.4 fWAR could become a bit of an afterthought, but that's what happened to Bryant once the All-Star break rolled around. Plenty of players would take that production over the course of an entire year, but he did this in just 363 plate appearances and a whole half of baseball left to be played. Despite that, he was still looking up at five other players with regard to fWAR.
But once the midsummer classic was through -- a game in which he didn't appear -- Bryant has been a key driver on offense for the Cubs.
Through just 289 plate appearances, the third baseman has just about doubled his season-long fWAR while posting a 157 wRC+ and .415 wOBA off the strength of a .332/.426/.560 triple slash. The only NL position player with a higher fWAR than him is Stanton, who done so thanks to hitting 31 homers (so far) since the All-Star break.
If we take a look at how position players on the Cubs have performed in the second half, it's Anthony Rizzo and Bryant, then everybody else. This group has produced a 15.3 fWAR, and Bryzzo has accounted for just over 35% of that number (Bryant's 3.3 and Rizzo's 2.1).
Chicago was just 43-45 at the All-Star break with an offense that owned a team wRC+ of just 93, ranking in the bottom half of the league. Yes, the pitching staff also needed to shape up, but the Cubbies needed their two best offensive players to take charge. That's exactly what they've done, with Bryant taking the lead once again. And now, he's been a huge part of bringing his squad to the brink of a third consecutive postseason berth -- which, believe it or not, hasn't happened for the franchise since the feat was accomplished from 1906-08.
Will Bryant win another NL MVP award this year? Probably not, but his performance and how important his play has been to Chicago warrants more consideration that it appears he'll get.