Kris Bryant has gotten so good, he may actually be underrated now


Kris Bryant has gotten so good, he may actually be underrated now

Kris Bryant's trophy case already features a World Series ring, the 2016 NL MVP Award and the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year honor.

And yet he played in just his third Opening Day game last month.

Bryant has already solidified himself as one of the very best players in Major League Baseball (racking up 19.7 WAR over the last three seasons), yet somehow, he's still getting better.

It's easy to look at the Cubs' Jekyll and Hyde offense and Bryant's low homer total (2) and think he's off to a slow start in 2018, but he's actually red-hot and showcasing his remarkable strides as a hitter.

In fact, Bryant has gotten so good, he may actually be underrated now.

The 2018 season is only a couple weeks old, so small sample size warning and all that, but Bryant currently leads the league in on-base percentage and has more walks (10) than strikeouts (8).

After pacing the NL with 199 strikeouts in 2015, Bryant has since reduced his whiffs each season while also increasing his walks. He's currently on pace for 116 walks to only 93 strikeouts over a full season.

That walk-to-strikeout ratio helps give credence to his .352 average and .493 on-base percentage.

But can he hit .300 over a full season? We've seen Bryant hit as high as .295, as he's also increased his batting average and on-base percentage each year in the league.

"He's been so good," Joe Maddon said. "They just look at the final numbers — what's he hitting? How many home runs does he have? He's worked a lot in spring training to not chase. And the less he chases, the greater those numbers are gonna be.

"If you really wanna hit .300, if that's a goal — which in this day and age of this not being that important, I think it is to a player, just like wins to a pitcher is important — you're not gonna hit that number unless you accept your walks. You're gonna have too many at-bats as a regular player. 

"It's gonna require too many hits if you're just putting everything in play. So if you accept your walks when this pitcher really does not want to pitch to you, that's gonna require less hits to hit .300. And I think these guys, once they do it, they understand how to do it and they're gonna do it more often."

Maddon also pointed to how Bryant is using the entire field well right now. He's actually pulling the ball more than ever (again, small sample size), but he's hitting more line drives all over the field. 

Bryant is hitting a line drive 39.1 percent of the time right now, up from his career-high of 23.7 percent during his 2016 MVP campaign. 

In all of baseball, only Pittsburgh's Corey Dickerson has a higher line drive rate (43.5 percent) than Bryant.

The power is what most casual fans think about when they see Kris Bryant play, but he's grown and evolved so much as a hitter that he's far, far more than just a slugger and instead is looking more and more each day like a young, right-handed hitting Joey Votto.

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish still searching for results, but maintains he's on the cusp of putting it all together

Yu Darvish accomplished something Saturday he has never done in a Cubs uniform — he pitched at least 5 innings in three straight starts for the first time since signing that $126 million deal more  than 14 months ago.

That's not exactly an indicator that Darvish will be contending for the National League Cy Young this season, but it's certainly a step in the right direction from his previous 10 starts in Chicago.

Darvish lasted just 5 innings in Saturday's 6-0 loss to the Diamondbacks, needing 88 pitches to get through those frames before being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth inning. 

He retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced, including a pair of strikeouts to end his last inning. 

Does he feel like he's still moving forward?

"I think so, especially that last inning," Darvish said. "The fifth inning — mentally — was very good. It's good for next start."

The end line Saturday wasn't great — 5 innings, 5 hits, 3 runs, 3 walks, 7 strikeouts, 2 homers — but he kept his team in the ballgame after giving up back-to-back homers to the second and third hitters of the afternoon.

He was still hitting 96 mph in the fifth inning and acknowledged he could've easily gone another inning if the Cubs weren't trailing 3-0 when his spot in the batting order came up.

"The fastball velocity came up as the game was going on, the breaking ball got sharper," Joe Maddon said. "...They got him quickly and then [Zack] Greinke pitched so well. I thought keeping it at 3, which Yu did do, and that's really not a bad thing after the beginning of that game. We just could not get to Greinke. 

"Had we been able to get back into the game, I think Yu's performance would've been looked on more favorably, because he actually did settle down and do a pretty good job."

Still, the Cubs need more than moral victories every time Darvish takes the ball.

Theo Epstein said earlier this month he doesn't think it's fair to issue a "start-to-start referendum" on Darvish, but this is 5 starts into the season now for the 32-year-old right-hander, who's walked 18 batters and served up 6 homers in 22.2 innings so far. 

Forget the salary or the big free agent deal. This is a four-time All-Star who has twice finished in the Top 10 in Cy Young voting, yet fell to 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in 13 starts in a Cubs uniform. 

In those 13 starts, Darvish has walked multiple batters in 11 of them and allowed at least 3 earned runs in 8 outings. He's also averaged less than 5 innings a start overall, and that number is down to just 4.5 innings per outing in 2019. 

Darvish said he wants to pitch into the seventh inning (something he's never done as a Cub) and believes that would be great for his confidence that's been building — slowly but surely — since the start of the season. But he still has to get over that hump.

"His stuff's nasty — plain and simple," Jason Heyward said. "Any time I pitch with Yu in a video game, guarantee at least a 1-hitter. I feel like his confidence is just another thing he'll have to keep building on for himself. 

"Every game is different. Today was — I guess you could say — a step back or whatever. Last start was pretty good and next start, I know he's gonna come out and be hungry again. ... Today was one day. We got a long season. Hopefully next time we can scratch a few runs across."

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Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

Cubs get more encouraging news on Jon Lester

The news on Brandon Morrow might not be so positive, but the Cubs did receive very good reports on their injured ace this weekend.

Jon Lester threw a simulated game against a couple of his Cubs teammates Saturday morning at Wrigley Field, tossing 45 pitches in total. In between "innings" of the sim game, Lester was also working out on the side in an effort to ramp up the intensity and simulate more of a game feel to see how his injured left hamstring will respond.

Lester initially went on the injured list two weeks ago after he was removed in the third inning of the Cubs' home opener on April 8, when he hurt his hamstring running the bases.

"[The sim game went] really well," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "I thought he looked very good. Pretty amazing where he's at already. ... Did not hold back at all, so it's very encouraging."

Maddon also said he thought Lester's stuff looked good from where he was watching behind the catcher and pointed out that the Cubs ace was "hypercritical of himself," indicating that Lester's focus was on competing and making good pitches instead of worrying about his hamstring or any physical limitations.

The Cubs don't have a next step mapped out for Lester just yet, as they will see how the 35-year-old feels Sunday after the "rigorous" activity Saturday.

There is currently no timetable for his return, but Maddon didn't rule out the possibility that Lester would be able to pitch sometime in the coming week.

The Cubs rotation has looked very good since Lester went down — combining for a 0.96 ERA in the last 7 games before Yu Darvish struggled early in Saturday's tilt with the Diamondbacks.

Tyler Chatwood gets the ball for the Cubs Sunday to close out the series against Arizona and then the team has Jose Quintana and Cole Hamels lined up for the first two games of the series against the Dodgers when they come to town Tuesday night. 

The Cubs won't need a fifth starter in the rotation again until next Saturday, April 27, so that could be a date to circle for a possible Lester return if all continues to go well in the veteran's recovery.

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