The game of baseball, especially at the major league level, is all about adjustments. How well a hitter can adjust to how he is being pitched will oftentimes determine his level of success. If there was any doubt surrounding Kris Bryant heading into his sophomore season, it was whether or not he would be able to adjust to big league pitching.
He was coming off a terrific rookie season in which he hit 26 home runs and drove in 99 runs, but he proved to be vulnerable to the strikeout and it was unclear whether or not he could sustain his success as the talented pitchers around baseball watched video of him, tried to figure out his tendencies and then attempted to exploit his weaknesses.
So far in 2016, Bryant is showing the nation that not only has he been able to maintain the productivity he displayed in his Rookie of the Year-winning season last year, but he has built on that success and catapulted his name into the conversation of the best player in Major League Baseball.
As a matter of fact, Bryant crossed home plate Friday night to a flurry of "MVP" chants after smashing a go-ahead home run in the 10th inning against the Dodgers. That crucial round-tripper, which was his second of the contest, traveled 405 feet to right-center field and put the Cubs up 6-4.
"It's pretty cool," Bryant said of the MVP chants, via Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. "Growing up, you hear that on TV and to hear it now, it's humbling and keeps me going, and keeps me determined to do more. It's pretty cool to hear."
Those fans are not incorrect in their award speculation -- Bryant is certainly deserving of the Most Valuable Player award. Yes, Corey Seager has been excellent and Daniel Murphy is putting together an incredible campaign, but Bryant's resume blows both out of the water.
His 35 home runs are tied with Nolan Arenado for the National League lead, his 107 runs scored are the most in the sport and he recently passed Mike Trout on FanGraphs' annual wins-above-replacement (WAR) leaderboard. In other words, FanGraphs thinks that Bryant has been the most valuable player in baseball to this point in the season.
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Remember those aforementioned strikeout concerns? All Bryant has done is cut his K-rate from 30% to 22% while also drastically improving his contact rate and reducing his swing percentage on pitches outside the strike zone.
Bryant's defense might go unnoticed because his bat is so dangerous, but his skill and versatility on that side of the ball is certainly a contributing factor to his immense value. He has been the third-best defensive third baseman in the NL so far this year, per FanGraphs WAR, and he has also logged significant time in left field, right field and first base.
As Ken Rosenthal pointed out in a recent column, if the the 24-year-old wunderkind were to win this year's MVP, it would be only the second time in MLB history that a player won the MVP while starting at least 30 games in the infield and the outfield. Stan Musial is currently the only player to accomplish the feat.
Bryant also joined Ernie Banks as the only two players in Cubs history to slug 35 home runs in his age-24 season. Or, as ESPN Stats & Info put it:
The term "valuable" is always under assault at this time of year, as MVP voters search for the winner. Well, whatever the definition, the fact that Bryant has been able to provide above-average defense at three different positions while continuing to be a dominant force in the batter's box has to point toward his value.
For Cubs manager Joe Maddon, having a player like Bryant gives him incredible flexibility not only while he is filling out his lineup card, but also during the game. In 33 of the Cubs' 129 games, Bryant has switched positions in the middle of the game. On two occasions, he has played three different positions in the same game.
And as far as the lineup goes, there can't be a much better feeling than penciling Bryant into the No. 2 spot in the order day in and day out. The San Diego product is hitting for average and power, driving in runs and getting on base in front of teammates Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell.
Bryant and Rizzo are each having fantastic seasons, and Rizzo will get some MVP consideration come voting time as well.
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Bryant is in the midst of a 10-game hitting streak -- he has hit a preposterous .488 (20-for-41) to go along with seven home runs and two multi-homer games in that span -- and is currently on pace to finish the season with 44 dingers, 112 RBI, 134 runs scored, 39 doubles and 10 stolen bases.
If that's not the stat line of an MVP winner, then I don't know what is.
But all told, Bryant encapsulates everything that the voters seem to want in an MVP. He is the best player on a team that is not only a contender but hands-down the best team in baseball. He contributes to his team in all facets of the game -- at the plate, in the field, on the base paths and in the clubhouse. And he is locked in and red-hot in the final stretch of the season, theoretically giving his team ample momentum heading into the postseason as the Cubbies try to break the 107-year curse that permeates the entire North Side of Chicago.
Simply put, Bryant is the clear choice for NL Most Valuable Player right now.
And, barring a horrid late-season slump or an absolute terror by one of his competitors, he should be the MVP come November.
Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price went on MLB Network Radio Monday morning and pleaded to the front office to spend some money, invest in the team and get him some better players to work with.
"There's pieces that need to be added to be looked at as a threat for 2017," Price said. "Great nucleus, but we need help."
It has been tough sledding for the Reds in recent years. In 2014, they won 76 games and finished fourth in the NL Central, and then took another step back in 2015 when they finished dead last in their division with a 64-98 record. So far in 2016, they are slated for another fourth- or fifth-place finish. These struggles are likely why, as Price mentions, the club has gotten rid of bigger contracts like Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto and Jay Bruce.
Someone who it hasn't been tough sledding for is Joey Votto. The Reds first baseman has been the best hitter in baseball since the All-Star Break, and ESPN Stats & Info did their best to capture his excellence:
This red-hot stretch comes after an awful start to the season for Votto. He had the worst April of his career -- he was 20 percent worse than the average MLB hitter, per his OPS+ of 80 -- and then hit only .200 in May. His strikeout rate was alarmingly high and when he did hit the ball, he wasn't making solid contact.
However, the consensus seemed to be that it didn't matter how much Votto struggled, he would eventually figure it out, turn it on down the stretch and look like the Joey Votto of old.
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“You can’t keep a good man down," Price said in a postgame press conference earlier this month. "He has a track record and that’s something you can reflect upon.
“I think it was inevitable that he was going to break out.”
Break out he has. Since July 1, the 32-year-old Ontario native has hit .421 (61-for-145) with 32 RBI, 36 runs scored, 38 walks and an OPS+ of over 200. With 100 being the league average, Votto's production the past two months has been sensational.
As Corinne Landrey of FanGraphs outlined last month, one of the catalysts behind Votto's resurgence has been that he has returned to his approach of hitting the ball to all fields. He was uncharacteristically pull-happy to begin the season, but now that he has been hitting the ball all around the yard, he has thrived.
Watch him smash a round-tripper to straightaway center a few days ago against the Dodgers:
And, entering play Tuesday, Votto's numbers stack up very favorably against MLB's other superstars. Despite his horrible start, Votto leads all of baseball in on-base percentage and is second in walk percentage, ninth in wRC+, sixth in weighted on-base average (wOBA) and seventh in OPS+.
If he can end the season with the highest on-base percentage, it would be the fifth OBP crown of his career.
Which brings us back to the current state of the Reds. They are desperately in need of some more young talent but, while Price's summary of the club's "great nucleus" may be a bit optimistic, they do have some pieces to build around. Billy Hamilton is unquestionably the fastest player in the game and he is getting better at the plate, shortstop Zack Cozart has been very good this year and should continue to be a solid big-league shortstop and outfielder Adam Duvall has enjoyed a terrific breakout season in which his 28 home runs propelled him to an All-Star Game berth.
The Reds have shown improvement of late, which could change the culture and attitude of the clubhouse moving into next season.
“It’s fun, man. This second half of the year has been obviously night-and-day from before,” Cozart said before Sunday's game, via C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The clubhouse is so much better, everybody’s in a better mood. When you win, it cures everything. You come in and you go 0-for-4 but if the team wins, it doesn’t matter. I hope people see that this is the type of team we can have if we’re healthy. I think the way we’re playing now is giving people confidence about how we’re going to show up next year, healthy and compete.
“Now, we show up and we think we’re one of the better teams. We’re not just beating up on teams that are good, we’re beating good teams consistently."
Votto will likely drive in Billy Hamilton on plenty of occasions in the next few years.
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The Reds have gotten increased effectiveness out of their pitching staff as well. Dan Straily, Brandon Finnegan and Anthony DeSclafani are all having solid seasons, and the trio of Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen and Tony Cingrani have all been fantastic.
But while it is no secret that pitching wins championships, Votto is the key. Having an MVP-caliber stud that you can pencil into the middle of the order every day of the year is critical to a team having success, and Votto is currently showing that he can be that guy. He is under the Reds control through 2023 because of the 10-year, $225 million extension he signed in 2012, and he is someone that they can build around for the duration of that contract.
At times his extension has looked like a catastrophic mistake -- most notably the slow starts he has endured the past two seasons -- but right now is not one of those times. He is exhibiting his incredibly patient eye at the plate and slugging the ball at an elite clip while playing solid defense at first base.
Hitting at the major league level is the hardest thing to do in all of sports, and teams have proven that they are willing to pay dearly for it. And, as you can see right now, there aren't many hitters right now better than Votto. He is one of the premier position players in the game and someone who could lead the Reds to the postseason in the future if given the proper pieces around him.
Turn back the calendar to March 2010, and Joe Mauer was on top of the baseball world. Mauer was coming off a phenomenal season in which he won the MVP and the batting title with a .365 batting average, he had just signed a lucrative $184 million contract extension and he was widely regarded as one of the best—if not the best—hitter in all of baseball.
Since then, though, Mauer has proven that his 28 homers from is MVP season were an anomaly from a power perspective, and his career embarked on a downward trend. He still OPS’d an impressive .871, hit 43 doubles and walked more times than he struck out in 2011, but he managed only nine home runs and finished eighth in the MVP voting.
It wasn’t just the Twins’ transition from the hitter-friendly Metrodome to spacious Target Field, either, although that didn’t help. But Mauer became a different hitter after 2010.
All of a sudden, he started hitting significantly fewer fly balls and a lot more ground balls. From 2008-2010, Mauer hit fly balls about 29 percent of the time; since then, his season fly ball percentage has been below 23 in all but one season. Furthermore, he has hit the ball on the ground more than half the time in all but one of those seasons.
Maybe it’s because the multiple injuries he suffered since that MVP season—a 2011 quad injury forced him to miss 80 games and a 2013 concussion also cut his season and ended his days of being a catcher—sapped all of his power. Or maybe not, but either way it doesn’t matter.
Because the point of this column is that even if Mauer is not the same kind of hitter he once was, he is still terrific and should be appreciated as such.
Mauer might not hit for much power anymore, but he still possesses a beautiful swing from the left side of the plate.
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The 33-year-old first baseman still doesn’t pull the ball much—only six players have hit the ball to the opposite field more than Mauer in 2016, according to FanGraphs—but he still has great plate discipline, gets on base at a high clip and squares up the ball with regularity.
His hard-hit percentage of 32.1 is his highest since 2013, per Fangraphs’ batted ball data. His average exit velocity of 90 mph is exactly the same as elite sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Bryce Harper, according to Statcast.
This year, he’s slashing .281/.381/.413 with ten home runs. Per Baseball-Reference’s OPS+, Mauer has been 17 percent above average in the hitting department this season. He started off the month of August red-hot, hitting .560 with nine RBI to earn co-Player of the Week honors. He hasn't cooled down much either, as his month average sits at a robust .407 entering play Friday.
He made a few adjustments at the end of July, and they have paid off in August.
“You get into bad habits, and I found something in the video that showed me that I wasn’t using my lower half like I should be,” Mauer said, via La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune. “I started working it in. It made my legs more sore, but I have been feeling good at the plate.”
There are a couple of reasons why Mauer has been all but forgotten in recent years, most notably the fact that he plays in the small market of Minnesota. The Twins have not been good this year—or any recent year, really—and haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, so they don’t exactly have a ton of publicity swirling around them.
There’s also the fact that Mauer is not a catcher anymore. The fact is that even the version of Mauer without home run power would still be one of the premier catchers in the game. With his defensive ability, on-base skills and leadership qualities, the sport would almost undoubtedly overlook his lack of power. After all, Buster Posey has only 12 home runs and 59 RBI this year, and is still thought of as the best backstop in the game.
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Big-time power is expected out of corner infielders more so than catchers, which is a likely reason why Mauer has lost some of his luster. Regardless, the former No. 1 overall pick has had a heck of a career. Check out his stats juxtaposed with Twins legend Rod Carew, the Hall of Fame second baseman, courtesy of Aaron Gleeman of Baseball Prospectus.
Pretty surprising, right? Again, I understand that having a high-average singles and doubles hitter is not ideal for a first baseman, but it’s still fairly impressive nonetheless.
I'm not saying Mauer is a Hall of Famer—far from it, actually. Even though I think he was on pace for Cooperstown when he was battering opposing pitchers as a catcher, I wouldn’t even put him in my top eight of current MLB first basemen. But he is still a solid major league hitter, and in today's era of baseball where pitchers are throwing harder than ever and hitters are striking out at breathtaking rates, that is nothing to sneeze at.
For his part, Minnesota manager Paul Molitor understands Mauer's value to the team. In an attempt to conserve Mauer's body and hopefully minimize his risk of injury, Molitor has made a concerted effort to give his first baseman more rest this season.
“We’ve talked throughout the year as to how to use him the most effectively,” Molitor said, per Neal. “And I think our most recent conversation was about how he was doing in terms of workload and given where we are at and also with some other people [to play]. There’s no sense to try to squeeze out every last little thing I can out of Joe this year.”
All told, Mauer is not your prototypical first baseman because he doesn't hit for power, but he is still a very good all-around hitter with an excellent approach at the plate and someone who I would certainly want on my team.