Because the baseball gods decree that every season must feature an overly complicated debate about the "V" in "MVP," 2016 has given us the curious case of Kris Bryant.
There's no need to be curious about Bryant's stardom. It's legit. The Chicago Cubs picked him No. 2 overall in 2013, and all he's done since then is emerge as a No. 1 prospect and last year's National League Rookie of the Year. For his next act, he has eyes on the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
That's not inside information, mind you. It's more like a hunch, based on the reality that Bryant is having an amazing season that only seems to be getting better. Case in point, his day at the office in the Cubs' 9-6 thrashing of the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday:
With five more hits, Bryant is now batting .296 with a .956 OPS. The latter ranks third in the National League. With 30 homers, he's tied with Nolan Arenado for first. With 78 RBI, he climbed into the NL's top 10.
Meanwhile, don't forget about his defense.
Cubs skipper Joe Maddon has tasked Bryant, a natural third baseman, with playing left field and right field in addition to the hot corner. Per advanced metrics like defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, Bryant has played well at all three positions.
No wonder wins above replacement really likes Bryant. He entered Thursday worth 5.5 WAR at Baseball-Reference.com, the highest of any NL player. Per FanGraphs, he exited Thursday worth 6.4 WAR, also the highest of any NL player.
Just as important, Bryant has not been struck by the Curse of Mike Trout. At 77-43, the Cubs have won five more games than any other team. And so, behold his case for the MVP: He's the best player in the league who also plays on the best team in the league.
Pretty good as far as MVP cases go, you dig? Of course you do. I can see your shovel and everything.
But ironclad? Not quite. In part because of this guy:
That's Anthony Rizzo, who is also a really good baseball player on the Chicago Cubs. He's hitting .291 with a .960 OPS, 25 homers and 86 RBI. He's been Bryant's equal on offense, if not a little better.
This is potentially a stick in the spokes of Bryant's MVP case. Simply being the best player on the best team is sometimes good enough to sway the voters. But they've also been known to like players who carry entire teams on their shoulders. Bryant and Rizzo have done that together.
To boot, Rizzo has batted behind Bryant all season. The jury's still out on whether lineup protection is actually a thing, but there's more than enough anecdotal evidence in favor of the idea. It's even coming from the two guys themselves. According to Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune, Rizzo often tells Bryant "I'm your Prince" in reference to when Miguel Cabrera won American League MVPs in 2012 and 2013 with Prince Fielder batting behind him. Bryant doesn't push back.
"I can't say enough about having him behind me, and a mentor and someone who I learn a lot from just how he goes about his at-bats," Bryant said. "Even though he's a lefty and I'm a righty, it seems like they pitch us very similarly."
Our own Danny Knobler recently wondered whether Bryant and Rizzo's MVP cases might cancel each other out. This would appear to be an especially prevalent concern for Bryant. He's having the better all-around season, but odds offered by ESPN.com's Dan Szymborski (h/t David Schoenfield) actually place him lower than Rizzo in the National League pecking order.
And then there's this guy:
If Rizzo's presence doesn't deny Bryant the award, Corey Seager's could. The Los Angeles Dodgers' rookie shortstop is blowing everyone away with a .311 average, an .893 OPS and 21 home runs. These numbers give him a huge lead in the NL Rookie of the Year race, and his MVP case is only gaining steam.
After all, Seager's only been hotter as the Dodgers have been without Clayton Kershaw and his almighty left arm. Not even counting two more hits on Thursday, Seager has hit .329 with a .907 OPS since Kershaw last started in late June. This is a big reason why the Dodgers have played such good baseball without their ace.
Seager won't necessarily end up with better numbers than Bryant if he keeps this up. But if he does, he'll be the big "narrative" candidate for the award. That is, the candidate who stepped up the most when it mattered most.
If clutchness does end up being a factor, that won't be the only trump card Seager has on Bryant. As good as Bryant has been, he hasn't been Seager's equal with runners in scoring position or in higher-leverage situations:
|Bryant vs. Seager in Pressure Situations|
|Player||RISP OPS||Low-Leverage OPS||Medium-Leverage OPS||High-Leverage OPS|
Note: These stats are current through August 17.
Since Seager's surge hasn't actually won the Dodgers anything yet, he probably wouldn't beat either Bryant or Rizzo for the MVP if the season ended today. And between the two, Bryant's all-around excellence would probably allow for a narrow victory.
But if Bryant wants even a narrow victory in November, the least he'll have to do is finish this season as strong as he's started it. To be absolutely safe, he'll likely have to outperform Rizzo down the stretch and hope that Seager and/or the Dodgers stumble at the same time.
Call it yet another tall order for a guy who never seems to face anything other than increasingly tall orders. But given his track record, it's hard not to picture him nodding and saying, "Challenge accepted."