Joey Votto

How Kris Bryant topped his MVP season with Cubs

How Kris Bryant topped his MVP season with Cubs

Kris Bryant won the National League MVP Award in his sophomore campaign, then promptly went out and got better in his third big-league season.

Bryant's career is off to one of the greatest starts in baseball history and is already one of the best players in Cubs franchise history.

And he won't turn 26 until January.

Bryant posted a .946 OPS in 2017, seven points higher than his MVP-winning 2016 OPS (.939). He didn't hit 30 homers or drive in 100 runs (in fact, he only drove in 73), but he improved in almost every other offensive category.

Bryant set new career highs in average (.295), on-base percentage (.409), walks (95) and doubles (38) while lowering his strikeout percentage for the third straight year.

He scored 111 runs, good for the fifth-highest total in the NL and eighth-highest in MLB. He led all third basemen in runs and walks while finishing third in OPS, just behind Colorado's Nolan Arenado (.959) and Cleveland's Jose Ramirez (.957).

Bryant is also the 12th Cubs player to score 100 runs in multiple seasons, becoming the first to do so since Sammy Sosa from 1998-2002.

Only Giancarlo Stanton (7.0) and Anthony Rendon (6.9) have a higher WAR (FanGraphs) in the National League and Bryant (6.8) is fifth in all of baseball, with Aaron Judge (8.2) and Jose Altuve (7.5) leading the game.

"Everybody's been critical of KB, but he quietly is one of the top WAR-mongers in the league right now," Joe Maddon said. "Everybody's like, 'What's wrong with KB?' Nothing!

"Everybody looks at the fact that his RBI total isn't what it could've been, but everything else is in play."

There are several explanations for Bryant's low RBI total. He took 74.78 percent of his at-bats in the No. 2 spot in the Cubs order, hitting behind the pitcher's spot and a revolving door of leadoff hitters who combined to get on base just 32.5 percent of the time.

Bryant also hit just .239 with runners in scoring position, but he posted a .375 on-base percentage and .462 slugging percentage in such situations, making for a darn good .837 OPS overall.

Bryant called himself a "table-setter" earlier in the season and that is exactly what he did for the Cubs offense. As the team found its groove post-All-Star Break, Bryant hit .328 with a .975 OPS in the second half while striking out only 53 times in 68 games.

He became a smarter and more consistent player in 2017, truly learning how to take it one day at a time.

"You have to look at it that way," he said. "At times, I still find myself thinking ahead to certain series and that's when I kinda lose it and things aren't going my way, because I'm thinking about something I don't need to think about.

"That's a good characteristic of a good team, I think. You just stay where you are, stay in the moment and enjoy it. Play hard, but don't really worry about the future too much."

Bryant's also been remarkably durable, becoming the first player in Cubs history to appear in 150 games in each of his first three MLB seasons. He's only the 11th player in MLB history to accomplish that feat and since 2000, only Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui have done the trick (with the latter two guys starting their professional career abroad playing in Japan).

Bryant is already tied with Dave Kingman for 25th in Cubs history with 94 career homers. He's the first player in franchise history to hit at least 25 homers in each of his first three MLB seasons.

He found himself in the MVP discussion as the season wore down, though some may devalue him based on his low traditional stats of homers and RBI in a year where baseball saw more longballs hit than ever before.

But Bryant has said in the past he models his game after Reds first baseman Joey Votto and the Cubs superstar took one step closer to that level of play in 2017.

The evolution of Kris Bryant and why Joey Votto became his favorite player

The evolution of Kris Bryant and why Joey Votto became his favorite player

Kris Bryant already has a bromance with Anthony Rizzo, their Bryzzo Souvenir Co. brand and a joint appearance at a downtown Chicago hotel this weekend where Cubs fans can pay $699 for their autographs.

Bryant also has a friendly rivalry with Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals superstar who loves trolling on social media and teasing where he might land as a free agent after the 2018 season. Even their wives had fun with it on Instagram earlier this month when the Nationals came to Wrigley Field for a potential playoff preview.

But the player Bryant patterns himself after now – the one who lives up to “The Science of Hitting” and the principles his father absorbed from Ted Williams and passed down in the family’s batting cage in Las Vegas – is Joey Votto.

“He’s the best player ever,” Bryant said before Wednesday night’s 7-6 walk-off win over the Cincinnati Reds. “He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain.

“He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Favorite player? Really?

“Besides, you know, people on my team,” Bryant said with a laugh.

The Cubs contained Votto on a night where their bullpen nearly imploded, holding him to a 1-for-4 that stopped him from tying the major-league record Williams set in 1948 by getting on base at least twice in 21 straight games with the Boston Red Sox.

Through Votto, Bryant sees where he can grow after becoming a National League Rookie of the Year and MVP and World Series champion before his 25th birthday.    

“He’s not just doing it this year – he’s doing it his whole career,” Bryant said. “He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant – who has reached base safely in his last 13 games and put up a 1.035 OPS in August – is heating up at a time when the Cubs are trying to fend off the Milwaukee Brewers (1.5 games back) and St. Louis Cardinals (2.5 games back) in a tight division race.

Where Votto famously dismissed old questions about whether or not he was being too selective, Bryant blocks out any talk about an All-Star snub, his batting average with runners in scoring position (.227) or RBI total (54). Bryant is getting on base more than 40 percent of the time and also leads the team in doubles (25), runs scored (78) and OPS (.936).  

“Sometimes it’s almost like you can kind of go up there and force the pitcher to throw the pitch that you want, just by taking pitches,” Bryant said. “My first year, I was kind of just up there swinging at everything. I still felt the approach was good and it could work in the big leagues. And it did. But I think there’s ways to have a better approach up there.

“(Votto’s) a different guy with that. I feel like he’s aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it. And he mentioned that to me, too, when I got to first (on Monday night). He said: ‘Your approach looks a lot better this year.’”

Bryant sincerely thanked Votto, but the reigning MVP isn’t trying to put together a package deal with Harper and turn the Cubs into Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.  

“I already told him before: ‘We already have a pretty good first baseman. He’s not going anywhere,’” Bryant said. “Joey can switch positions if he wants to play for the Cubs.”

Joe Maddon's "Step Brothers" moment led to wacky shift on Joey Votto

Joe Maddon's "Step Brothers" moment led to wacky shift on Joey Votto

Joe Maddon and Davey Martinez might have to start going by "Nighthawk" and "Dragon."

They already came as a package deal in the workforce, as Martinez joined Maddon in the trek from Tampa Bay to Chicago before the 2015 season.

When gameplanning for the Cincinnati Reds series, the celebrity manager and his bench coach had a "did we just become best friends??" moment.

The two had the same thought at the same time: Play four outfielders against red-hot Joey Votto.

"Davey and I were talking. It was almost like that scene in 'Step Brothers' — 'Did we just become best friends?'" Maddon said. "Thought the same thing at the same time — four outfielders! It was kinda like that.

"Sometimes it can be that extemporaneous. They're telling me all this stuff about how many days in a row he's been on base two times. That's crazy. You know he's gonna get on base, whether it's a walk or a single. 

"So go ahead. Just try something differently and see if it influences what he's thinking a little bit. But it obviously didn't [Monday]. Pulls the ball down the right-field line. That's the last thing you were looking for right there and it happened."

Maddon emphasized that part — just giving Votto a different look. At the very least, it may mess with his head a bit if not his swing.

The Cubs were only worried about the bunt or the popup down the left-field line with the wacky shift and alerted shortstop Javy Baez about that as third baseman Kris Bryant moved out to left-center.

There was also the added factor that Jose Quintana gives up more fly balls than grounders and Votto rarely hits the ball on the ground the opposite way.

"Why cover where the guy doesn't hit the ball?" Maddon asked. "Whereas you can cover more where he does. That's the essence of the shift.

"I wanted them to attempt to hit a groundball over there as opposed to driving the ball. ... You want to take them away from what they do best."