Believe it: Kris Bryant kept Cubs in contention with another MVP-level season

ST. LOUIS – Kris Bryant doesn’t drink, but even he felt the World Series hangover, admitting there were times this season where he felt “completely beat” mentally and physically after playing into early November last year and handling face-of-the-franchise responsibilities as the National League’s reigning MVP.

But by the final week of September, the Cubs are where they thought they would be, still on the verge of celebrating their second division title after Tuesday night’s 8-7 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. And Bryant is a money player who’s quietly moved to the top of the NL leaderboard for Wins Above Replacement (6.8) on FanGraphs.

If Bryant’s 2015 Rookie of the Year campaign proved he could live up to the hype, and 2016 became all about the quest to end the World Series drought in Wrigleyville, then 2017 again showed his internal drive, ability to adjust and unbelievable consistency.     

“Performing when the team needs you most down the stretch when you could be sluggish,” Bryant said, “or sometimes it’s hard to wake up and come to the field every day for a 1:20 game when you just had a night game, I take pride in those things.

“I just want to show up for my teammates when they need me most. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

Where everything sped up on Kyle Schwarber to the point where he needed a Triple-A Iowa reset, and Addison Russell dealt with a series of injuries and off-the-field issues, Bryant remained steady, hitting almost .300, blasting 29 homers, getting on base 41 percent of the time and putting up a .954 OPS that’s 15 points higher than where he finished his MVP season.

The next five NL position players on that FanGraphs leaderboard: Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (6.7), Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (6.5), Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton (6.4), Colorado Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon (6.3) and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (5.7).

WAR, what is it good for?

“I hear about it every day on TV,” Bryant said. “You can’t get away from it because of all these crazy numbers. I guess when you look at that on the surface, RBI is a really nice stat. It’s just been there for 100 (years) and however long this game has been played. But I guess when you look at the advanced stuff, it maybe doesn’t mean as much.”

Bryant hasn’t generated much buzz as an MVP candidate, probably because the Cubs underachieved during the first half of the season and Anthony Rizzo should get votes after putting together another 30-homer, 100-RBI season with Gold Glove-caliber defense.

Bryant’s RBI total (73) also won’t stand out to the old-school voters, though his evolving approach dramatically dropped his strikeout percentage – from 30.6 in 2015 to 18.9 this season – without draining power or losing patience.   

“I take pride in just being a complete player and doing everything that I can,” Bryant said. “Base running, defense, taking the extra base, I think all that encompasses into all these new numbers that are coming out. I guess it’s just a byproduct of me wanting to be that complete player.”

That all-around game will help push the Cubs into October for the third straight year. Where Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo never played in a postseason game during 33 seasons combined with the Cubs, Bryant has played 454 regular-season games for this franchise and not once has his team been eliminated from playoff contention.     

“I was just sitting there thinking about it,” Bryant said. “People go their whole career and never make the playoffs.

“Definitely got to take advantage of the opportunities where you do have a team that can make the playoffs – and go far in the playoffs. Not to be taken for granted at all.”