Cubs star's strong NL MVP Award case boosted by defensive prowess all over field
By Joe Trezza
The Cubs' run to the National League Central crown began on April 4, with Kris Bryant at third base. It concluded with Chicago's first division title in eight years on September 15, with Bryant at third base. In between, Bryant played more than 300 innings in left field, nearly 100 more in right, 43 at first base, and he sprinkled in cameos at shortstop and center field.
That Bryant put up the offensive numbers he has -- including NL-best marks in runs and WAR -- while wearing so many gloves not only resulted in one of the most unique MVP Award-caliber seasons, but it may also foreshadow the way teams start utilizing a new wave of hybrid stars.
And it's beginning to beg an intriguing question: Is Bryant the best utility player ever?
That answer lies in your particular definition of that phrase. Admittedly, Bryant isn't a utility player in the conventional sense of the word. That usually implies a bench player who stays in the big leagues with his glove, not dominates it with his bat. But Bryant has hit .295/.389/.564 with 39 home runs this season while playing six positions, which would easily be the most for an NL MVP Award winner. And that doesn't include all the modern positional permutations inherent in overshifting. Technically, Bryant has played just one inning at shortstop. But in reality, he's played in the middle of the diamond countless times, a 6-foot-5 rover who rates average to above average everywhere.
"The ability for him to also do that it makes him even more valuable," said second baseman Ben Zobrist, who's had a relatively static defensive season, for his standards, in part because of Bryant's versatility. "For K.B., how well he's played at all the positions he's played certainly should give people more consideration in thinking about him as an MVP candidate."
If he wins the award, Bryant would become just the third NL MVP Award winner since 1960 to appear defensively in both the infield and outfield. The other two players -- Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell in 1994, Giants left fielder Kevin Mitchell in '89 -- switched positions only in emergencies.
Bryant's unique versatility enhances his case for the league's top award in a race against two players who play one position extremely well -- Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager -- and Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy, who is limited defensively.
"Versatility is great, but if you're not doing a good job at the position, it doesn't really matter," Bryant said. "I just try to be that unselfish player who is willing to move around and do whatever I can to help."
The largest chunk of Bryant's value has come from the corner positions -- namely third base, left field and right field. Just 59 players qualified for the batting title while playing at least 10 percent of their games at third, left and right, which Bryant will do. Of those, Bryant's 120 runs scored lead the way. He has 39 home runs, the most of any of the qualified players (his 18 hit by pitches are also the most, and have helped boost his on-base percentage to .389). His 7.5 WAR (per Baseball Reference) is already the highest.
WAR is best used as a generalization, not a counting stat, meant to separate tiers of players, not split hairs. In that spirit, only one player on the list comes within a full win of Bryant's season. That's Albert Pujols' rookie season in 2001, when he hit .329/.403/.610 with 37 home runs while seeing time at four positions. Pujols placed fourth in the NL MVP Award voting that season, but he took home the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Pujols is an interesting, if imperfect, comp. Even if Bryant slices his strikeout rate another nine percent, as he did this year, he won't be the pure hitter Pujols was. Bryant's 141 strikeouts this year are more than double Pujols' career 162-game average.
But Pujols was very versatile early in his career. Pujols played five positions his sophomore season -- including a cameo at shortstop -- and hit .314/.394/.561 with 34 homers. It's probably the most comparable year to Bryant's 2016 season in terms of production and versatility. Pujols placed second in NL MVP Award voting that year behind Barry Bonds. But he's not the player anymore -- diminished mobility has limited him to just 60 innings anywhere but first base and DH over the last 13 seasons.
Bryant's versatility doesn't seem to be going anywhere, barring injury, because of the way it was cultivated during his amateur and brief Minor League career. The Cubs scouted Bryant playing center field for the University of San Diego in 2013, the year he led the nation in home runs, and continue to spearhead a league-wide movement to develop athletic, movable players.
"What if you have a shortstop in the Minors whose bat is ready, but you don't have any room at shortstop?" Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier this year. "What if you have room in left field? That's why I think it's wise to use these kids in different spots."
It's easy when they excel everywhere, like Bryant does.
Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz. MLB.com reporters Carrie Muskat and Phil Rogers contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.