Ripped from the headlines!


Ripped from the headlines?

November 2016: Versatile Cubs slugger Kris Bryant named NL MVP.

November 2017: Cubs superstar Kris Bryant wins back-to-back NL MVPs.

November 2018: Cub-stock continues as NL MVP Kris Bryant three-peats!

What we know now is that Bryant, who led the National League in runs scored (121) while smashing 39 homers, hitting .292 and producing 102 RBI, is the much-deserved winner of the 2016 NL MVP award.

His bat, versatility afield (third base, left field, right field, first base), razor-sharp baserunning and overall contribution to winning made him a shoo-in. He excels in both old-school stats and new-age metrics: His 8.4 WAR was the best in the NL and second in the majors to Mike Trout (9.4), per the FanGraphs model.

What we think is that his age (24), astronomical ability and the relative strength of his team will carry him to a few more MVP awards by the time he’s ready to join the billy goats in the pasture. At the very least, like Trout, assuming good health, Bryant should be in MVP contention for the next several years.

Trout, 25, is still considered the best overall player in the game, and for that reason some view his failure to win more than one MVP to this point as a criminal offense (UPDATE: he won his second on Thursday night). To Bryant’s benefit now, though, is that where Trout has been betrayed by a failing organization, the Chicago Cubs are ready for prime time for the next several years.

With MVP voters leaning toward players who helped their teams win division titles more heavily in the wild-card era (1995 and after) than ever before, Trout’s sinking Los Angeles Angels could have been a drag on his vote. In the three seasons he finished second in the voting—2012, 2013 and 2015—the Angels finished third in the AL West in each.

When he won in 2014, his Angels won the AL West with the best record in the majors.

It doesn’t take the president of the Society for American Baseball Research to make the connection that the MVP award favors team win-loss records heavily.

Conversely, Bryant’s Cubs appear loaded for the next several seasons. They are young, talented and cutting-edge. So is Bryant.

He becomes the third player since Cal Ripken Jr. (1982 and 1983) to win a Rookie of the Year award one year and an MVP the next. The other two? The Philadelphia Phillies’ Ryan Howard (2005 and 2006) and the Boston Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia (2007 and 2008).

In fact, the beginning of Bryant’s career further mirrors that of Ripken in that Ripken’s Baltimore Orioles won the World Series in his MVP season of ’83, as the Cubs did during what should be Bryant’s MVP season.

“I didn’t actually make that connection,” Ripken told Bleacher Report on Wednesday, referring to the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. “I guess I don’t think in terms of individual awards. 

“With Bryant, I was thinking in terms of what a good start to his career he’s had in that the Cubs have been right in the thick of things where you’re good and you’re winning and it’s fun and you’re going to the playoffs. The fastest years I ever had were when I played on good, winning teams.”

Ripken did wind up winning multiple MVP awards: After ’83, he won again in 1991. And he finished third in 1989.

“The awards are sort of the icing on the cake,” Ripken said. 

“When you’re playing the game and you’re on a winner, it’s easier because you’re in line with how you want to play the game. What can I do to help us win today? Sometimes it’s a big hit, sometimes it’s a home run, sometimes it’s making a play in the field, sometimes it’s moving a runner from second to third. Stats build. I thought Eddie Murray was the MVP of our team in ’83. He made life easier for me. I thought I got credit for playing shortstop [a premium position].

“We don’t know how good Kris Bryant can be. It’s happened really fast and we marvel at his accomplishments. And in the back of our minds we think, can he be even better? That’s the fun part moving forward. It’s exciting to think ahead to what he can do.”

Winning multiple, or even back-to-back, MVP awards isn’t so rare. The Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera did it recently, winning the AL MVP award in 2012 and 2013, and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Albert Pujols did it in 2008 and 2009. The San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds won four in a row from 2001-04.

Going back a bit, the Chicago White Sox’s Frank Thomas won in 1993 and ’94, and in the NL the trend has been for it to happen at least once a decade going back 40 years. Before Bonds in the early 2000s, he also did it in 1992 and 1993 (and in 1990 before that to give him three in four years). The Atlanta Braves’ Dale Murphy did it in 1982 and ’83, Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt in ’80 and ’81 and the Cincinnati Reds’ Joe Morgan in ’75 and ’76.

Among many other things, what sets Bryant apart from the crowd today is his capability and willingness to move around the diamond without allowing it to affect other parts of his game. You could argue, and Bryant does, that the versatility strengthens the other parts of his game.

“I just think that’s where the game is at right now,” Bryant told me this summer. “Versatility is what teams like. For me, I think it definitely adds value.”

Bryant becomes only the second player ever to be named MVP after starting at least 30 games in the infield and 30 in the outfield. The other was Stan Musial in 1946. Musial that year started 114 games at first base and 42 in the outfield. Bryant this year started 100 at third base, 48 in the outfield and six at first base.

Bryant is part of a generation of players who cut their teeth playing different positions, and instead of worrying that there is too much pressure in the majors to continue doing it, he simply goes with the flow and takes the opposite tack.

“Honestly, I feel like at times at this level it’s easier because you have the better lights, the better visual backdrops, that sort of thing,” Bryant told B/R. “Obviously, I’ve played third base, but moving around might add a little more of that fresher element.”

Said Ripken: “That’s an interesting attitude. Maybe it does keep him fresher and mentally not worrying about things. Having a balance and thinking about your defense and your offense [separately] can be healthy, so you don’t have a tendency to dwell on a slump or two.”

Ripken couldn’t get to that place in 1996, when B.J. Surhoff was injured and Ripken moved from shortstop to third base for six games.

“I remember from my personality, it was more of a worry,” Ripken said. “I worried and concentrated on my defense, and it felt like my balance was out of whack. I felt like my offense didn’t seem to matter, but my defense did. You constantly had to think about what your responsibilities were at third base versus what they were at shortstop.”

And by then, Ripken was 35 and well into a Hall of Fame career.

“It’s also a tribute to Bryant and his athleticism,” Ripken said. “He runs really well for a big guy. He has the skills to bump around. But it’s also a tribute to him that he’s open-minded and has the attitude to do that. And that becomes valuable to [Cubs manager] Joe Maddon, which ultimately becomes really valuable to the Cubs.”

Conventional wisdom suggests that hopping around defensively does add distractions that might sabotage a player at the plate. But Bryant this year proved otherwise.

The greatest area of Bryant’s offensive improvement in 2016 was in his plate discipline, as Neil Greenberg pointed out in his “Fancy Stats” column in the Washington Post. Bryant sliced his strikeout rate to 22 percent from 30.6 percent last year and improved his power numbers on pitches in the top third of the strike zone and above to .560 from .527.

That suggests Bryant is still improving, and will continue to do so. And, furthermore, he can beat you in myriad ways. According to FanGraphs, Bryant’s acumen as a baserunner in 2016 was worth 7.3 runs above average to the Cubs. Only the San Diego Padres’ Wil Myers (7.8) ranked ahead of him in the NL, and as Greenberg notes in the Post, only Atlanta’s Ender Inciarte went from first to third on a single more often than Bryant last summer.

“I feel like you separate your offense and your defense,” said Bryant, who, as a rookie in ’15, started 136 games at third base and only 10 in the outfield. “You don’t take your offense into the field and you don’t take your fielding into your at-bats, and that’s just kind of what you learn from Little League on.

“There are two sides to the ball. That’s how I approach it.” 

His approach is a boon to both the Cubs and to Maddon, as Ripken pointed out. As Ben Zobrist told me over the summer, it’s one thing for a player to bounce around defensively like Zobrist did back in Tampa Bay when he was breaking in, scratching and clawing for playing time. But Bryant is a bona fide superstar, and they generally are not as willing to bounce around the diamond the way Bryant is.

“Most guys in his position would not do that,” Zobrist said. “That just says the kind of person, the kind of team guy, he is.”

Musial, by the way, wound up with three MVP awards during his career and a plaque in Cooperstown. He also played in four World Series for the Cardinals, helping to win three titles.

Yes, the combination of talent and attitude can prove unbeatable.

“K.B. has a ton of humility,” Padres manager Andy Green told me this summer. “It’s a characteristic you don’t necessarily expect to see from a player as special as he is. I saw it at the Double-A All-Star Game when he was there and I was managing there [in 2014]. He’s a special guy. He’s very unique.

“I don’t think he balks at anything Joe does because he considers Joe the manager and I’ll do whatever you tell me. You want me to play center field, I’ll play center field. You want me to hit third, I’ll hit third. Those are great attributes to have in a young star.”

Those are attributes that will play. Any team, any time, any place.

And in the end, in the right situation, they can lead to moments like Rookie of the Year, World Series ticker-tape parades and, of course, MVPs.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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