Cody Bellinger

Kris Bryant is better than ever

Kris Bryant is better than ever

If the season ended today, these would be all the categories Kris Bryant would set new career highs in:

Batting average
Slugging percentage
OPS
OPS+
Strikeout percentage
wRC+
wOBA
ISO

On top of that, he's on pace for a career high in runs scored and doubles and on track to approach career bests in homers, walks and WAR. 

Even if you don't know what some of those stats mean, the conclusion is clear: Kris Bryant is better than ever.

Yes, that includes his 2016 MVP campaign.

Consider this:

In '16, Bryant hit .292/.385/.554, good for a .939 OPS with 39 homers, 102 RBI and 121 runs scored.

In '19, he's hitting .299/.408/.565, good for a .973 OPS and on pace for 34 homers, 79 RBI and 125 runs scored.

The season isn't ending today, but there's actually a strong chance Bryant even improves on those numbers given the way he's been trending.

Since receiving a day off on June 12, he's slashing .369/.458/.660 (1.119 OPS) with 16 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) and 24 runs scored in 28 games. He's also reached base safely in 36 of his last 38 contests.

That includes a solo homer off Sonny Gray to kick off the scoring in Wednesday's Cubs victory.

"KB's been playing really well," Joe Maddon said. "Shoot, for a month-and-a-half now he's been kinda toasty. That ball was properly struck off Gray. Then he continued with base hits, good at-bats, his baserunning again is spectacular, a good play in left field. He's playing pretty much at the top of his game right now."

As Maddon alluded to, Bryant does so many different things to help the Cubs win, from his exceptional baserunning (like going first to third on an infield hit Wednesday) to playing solid defense all over the field. 

In the three-game series against the Reds, Bryant started at three different positions — right field (Monday), third base (Tuesday) and left field (Wednesday).

"It's not an easy thing to do," Jason Heyward said. "When you move around the field, it's not easy to keep the defense. It's gonna take time for anyone to settle in. He takes a lot of pride in offense, obviously, but he takes a lot of pride in being a winning baseball player — he runs hard, hustles and a lot of those things he does don't always show up in the box score. 

"The year he won MVP, obviously he had home runs, he had the numbers, but he hustles, he runs down the line. He wants to make good plays on defense and just gives us another opportunity to move people around and give somebody the day off — like [Kyle Schwarber Wednesday]."

Bryant can also hit just about anywhere in the Cubs lineup and he's been particularly..."toasty," to borrow Maddon's phrase...since he moved to the three-spot in the order just before the All-Star Break.

In those nine games where Bryant has hit between Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo, he's posting a .424/.537/.909 line (1.446 OPS) with 4 doubles, 4 homers and 11 runs scored while walking more than he's striking out (8 to 5). 

Even with all Bryant has accomplished this season, he still might not finish any higher than third in National League MVP voting this year, as Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich are playing out of their minds.

Still, the Cubs will certainly take what Bryant's given them this season — a deserving All-Star after missing more than 60 games a year ago with a shoulder injury.

The Cubs offense still has some work to do to become more consistent, but a healthy and thriving Bryant has been a large step in the right direction.

"It's huge," Heyward said. "Anytime you don't have an MVP in the lineup and have him missing that kind of time is huge. Let alone, it's Kris Bryant. For him to bounce back — All-Star season, all those things is awesome, but just him being healthy, being out there and competing with us, it goes a long way."

A small change in interactions with Cubs teammates has paid huge dividends for Kyle Hendricks

A small change in interactions with Cubs teammates has paid huge dividends for Kyle Hendricks

Since the calendar flipped to May, Kyle Hendricks has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

He's 6-0 with a 1.99 ERA and 0.82 WHIP over his last eight starts and during that span, only Max Scherzer, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Stephen Strasburg have racked up more WAR in the National League than the 29-year-old right-hander.

Now the Cubs will turn to Hendricks as something of a stopper. After dropping another game on the road Thursday night — their 8th loss in the last 10 contests away from Wrigley Field — the Cubs hope The Professor can keep his hot streak going and somehow find a way to keep Cody Bellinger in the ballpark. 

Hendricks has put together solid stretches over the last few seasons, but this six-week span has been a little different.

As a contact-oriented pitcher, Hendricks always has to rely on his defense, but now — more than ever — he is leaning on his teammates.

He shut down the Cardinals his last time out — only 1 run allowed in 7 innings Sunday night at Wrigley Field — but admitted after that outing that he wasn't even mentally in the game until about the fourth inning. So instead he deferred to catcher Willson Contreras.

"What he was putting down — he could feel what the hitters were doing better than I could today," Hendricks said of Contreras. "So I started relying on him and he had more energy and he just mentally got me to be more aggressive and more into it."

Hendricks is one of the most cerebral pitchers in all of baseball, utilizing his superior intellect and scouting reports to attack hitters and shut down opponents. 

But even he can't see everything, so he's seeking input from the likes of Contreras, shortstop Javy Baez and outfielder Jason Heyward. 

When Hendricks twirled 8 shutout innings against the Marlins at Wrigley Field on May 8, Heyward approached him in the dugout during the course of the game and chatted about how Hendricks could steal some strikes against Miami's young lineup by taking advantage of their aggressiveness.

Heyward — who was playing center field that night — noticed the Marlins were ready to jump all over Hendricks' first offering each at-bat so instead of throwing the ball in the zone, he could get ahead in the count by getting them to chase. That's a different gameplan than what Hendricks typically employs, as he so often gets ahead of hitters with first-pitch strikes and entered that start against the Marlins coming off an uber-efficient 81-pitch shutout against the Cardinals where he got a lot of early outs. 

In the middle of his solid start against the Rockies at home last week, Hendricks actually had a brief conference on the mound with Baez, who told the Cubs pitcher what he was seeing from the hitters as far as their swings and what pitch they might be expecting.

"He knows the game so well, so that happens a lot," Hendricks said at the time. "I'll look back to short and he'll kinda give me signals even when he's not coming out for the visit. In that situation, I know what he's seeing and he sees the game as well as anyone. So if they're late or early, what guys are sitting on, I definitely take into consideration what he tells us."

It's not that Hendricks had shunned teammates in the past or was closed off to any help from his catcher or the defenders behind him. And there are plenty of other reasons to point to for Hendricks' recent success — his velocity has steadily ticked up and he's inducing more swings-and-misses (particularly with his excellent changeup).

But the extra communication is an evolution that has helped lead to some legit results on the mound for him over the last month-and-a-half. 

"I haven't done it as much in the past," Hendricks said after his last outing. "Maybe they haven't come to me as much, either. I think it's from both sides — we both just feel more comfortable. It's just that team mentality that we've all bought into and trying to win this ballgame. 

"Everybody's locked in to another level and having Javy out there especially, he sees the game so well. I'll look back and get things off of him or he'll come up and tell me something if he sees something. I just trust him 100 percent now. He's always on the same page with Willson, too — he's so in tune to the game.

"[Heyward] does the same thing in the outfield. We're leaning on each other a little more than we used to."

But why now? What precipitated this change in Hendricks' in-game conversations with teammates?

"Just wanting to win — the competitive nature of it," he said. "Just taking advantage of any small thing you can to beat the opposition. That's where we're at this year and we're really trying to take it day by day. It's going out, competing with everything we got to win this game today and I think it gets everybody locked in a little bit more."

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

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USA TODAY

Dodgers look like the perfect landing spot for Jake Arrieta

Super-agent Scott Boras already has the metaphor ready for Jake Arrieta, trying to sell his client as an updated version of Jon Lester, someone with big-game experience, proven durability and the presence to energize an entire clubhouse.   

“He’s a big squirrel,” Boras said. “He has a lot of nuts in his tree.”

That’s exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers need now after their super-team broke down against the Houston Astros. Losing a World Series Game 7 could create a new sense of urgency and push even the most analytical organization outside its comfort zone.  

You didn’t need to be sitting in the Boras Corporation’s front-row seats at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night to see what could be coming next. One year after the Cubs finally won the World Series, Arrieta is now a free agent with the perfect landing spot already cleared in Los Angeles.  

Watching Yu Darvish get 10 outs combined in two World Series losses reinforced the perception that Arrieta is the best starting pitcher on the open market and the Dodgers whiffed by not signing Max Scherzer three years ago or trading for Justin Verlander last winter or this summer.

The Dodgers built a 104-win team with a lot of mix-and-match pieces, layering depth and versatility into the roster, elements that kept showing up across a 162-game season.

But there are lingering questions about Clayton Kershaw’s playoff performances – 7-7 with a 4.35 ERA in 122 career innings – and the three-time Cy Young Award winner can opt out of the final two years of his $215 million contract after the 2018 season.     

The Dodgers didn’t let Rich Hill go longer than five innings in any of his four playoff starts this year, allowing him to only face 18 or 19 hitters each time. Kenta Maeda didn’t get nearly as much exposure to lineups, reinventing himself as a bullpen weapon this October.

The Dodgers paid roughly $37 million to Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Scott Kazmir this season and got almost 220 innings combined and zero playoff starts out of those investments. Julio Urias, the elite pitching prospect once compared to Fernando Valenzuela, underwent season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in June.   

Arrieta is already playoff-tested after dominating the Pittsburgh Pirates with a complete-game shutout in the 2015 National League wild-card game, beating the Cleveland Indians twice on the road during last year’s World Series and putting up a 3.08 ERA in nine postseason starts.

Arrieta will be 32 next season, but Boras will point to his relatively low pitching odometer (1,161 career big-league innings) and how that compares to Scherzer when he signed his seven-year, $210 million megadeal with the Washington Nationals (almost 1,240 innings).   

A sprawling Los Angeles front office saturated with Big Data should appreciate Arrieta’s numbers across the last four seasons when compared to all major-league pitchers: third in ERA (2.67) and batting average against (.201); tied for fifth in WAR (18.5) and soft-contact percentage (22); and sixth in WHIP (1.03).

Five years in a row, the Dodgers have won the NL West, a division that featured two other playoff teams this year (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies) and a franchise that has won three World Series titles since 2010 (the San Francisco Giants).

Arrieta would help the Dodgers stay ahead in that arms race and could be the missing piece for October. It’s not 108 years, but the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988, or the year Kershaw was born. That sense of history would appeal to Arrieta’s ego and sense of purpose.

So would iconic Dodger Stadium, an ideal pitching environment where Arrieta threw a no-hitter on national TV during his 2015 Cy Young Award campaign and walked into the postgame press conference wearing a onesie covered in moustaches.

Arrieta is someone who dropped into Second City improv classes, posed nude for ESPN the Magazine’s body issue, developed his own Pilates/nutrition program and lives in Austin, Texas, during the offseason. Think Hollywood opportunities and the Southern California lifestyle might be more attractive than, say, living in St. Louis for the next five seasons and playing under The Cardinal Way?  

The Dodgers also have a core of 20-something hitters – Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes – to go with widely respected manager Dave Roberts and All-Star closer Kenley Jansen.    

After splitting the last two NL Championship Series – while also looking like contenders for years to come – imagine Arrieta returning to Wrigley Field next October in Dodger blue.