Joey Votto

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

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USA TODAY

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.

The value of a unicorn like Tommy La Stella

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AP

The value of a unicorn like Tommy La Stella

A Cubs player turned to his right, saw Tommy La Stella sitting in a chair in the Miller Park visiting locker room, smiled and said:

"Dude, you're the best pinch-hitter ever."

La Stella laughed it off and resumed watching The Masters. 

"Best Pinch-Hitter Ever" may not rival "Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" in terms of importance to a Cubs team with World Series expectations, but La Stella's role has always been under the radar.

The 29-year-old utility man has only tallied 353 at-bats over his four seasons in a Cubs uniform, but he's been a mercenary of sorts for manager Joe Maddon, who can deploy La Stella at the most opportune times in a game.

He appeared in all but one of the Cubs' first 10 contests in 2018, though had just one start. Still, he's gone 3-for-8 in a pinch-hitting capacity, smacking two doubles with a pair of RBI. 

Those numbers would be even higher if not for a Milwaukee official scorer who ruled La Stella's hard-hit grounder an error Sunday, though La Stella's aforementioned teammate clearly disagreed.

Last year, La Stella posted a ridiculous .290/.488/.419 slash line (.908 OPS) as a pinch-hitter, going 9-for-31 with four doubles, seven RBI and 10 walks against only five strikeouts.

"He knows what he's doing," Maddon said. "He knows how to do it. He doesn't try to force anything. He's not trying to appease me or anybody else with his preparation. He just prepares, which I love.

"He's a different cat. He's a very valuable commodity in today's game, in the National League, especially because of his pinch-hitting abilities. I anticipate and believe he will remain this way for several years to come."

Once upon a time, Maddon said La Stella may be the best pure hitter on the Cubs roster, using that as rationale for why the infielder was hitting fifth in the 2015 wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh.

Then there's the uber-popular "3 a.m." nickname that's taken on a life of its own after a comment Maddon made in spring training a few years ago, saying La Stella could wake up at 3 a.m. and hit line drives all over the field.

And there was the hilarious prank war between La Stella and Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer in spring training, showing there were absolutely no hard feelings after the August 2016 incident where La Stella left the organization and nearly quit baseball.

While the rest of baseball is focused on launch angles and strikeouts are coming in record numbers, La Stella has stayed true to who he is as a hitter, sticking with a throwback style that makes him something of a unicorn in today's game.

He struck out only 18 times in 73 games last year, ranking as the 17th-toughest hitter to strike out in the game.

Among players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2017, La Stella was one of just seven MLB hitters who had more walks than strikeouts, joining the ranks of NL MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto and Anthony Rendon, among others.

"He has such an old-school swing," Maddon said. "He's tension-free, he's flat through the zone, he doesn't try to lift anything, he's got a good eye, he'll work a count.

"He's unique in a lot of ways, meaning that he's not into the launch angles, not trying to power the ball. He's into using the whole field. He's got a really great base and he doesn't overthink it, that's for sure.

"He doesn't swing too often. He's not out there taking extra BP. He doesn't overanalyze himself. For me, a lot of old school tenants about the way he hits and I think we all appreciate that."

Justin Wilson's bounceback can be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

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AP

Justin Wilson's bounceback can be a gamechanger for Cubs bullpen

The Cubs bullpen has been the lone bright spot in the first five games of the 2018 season.

While the offense has struggled (18 straight scoreless innings) and the starters have had an uneven performance one turn through the rotation, the bullpen has been the saving grace.

Justin Wilson is a huge factor in that.

He's tied for the team lead with three appearances and is second only to Eddie Butler (who had all 7 innings of relief in the one 17-inning game) with 3.2 innings.

In fact, Wilson has gotten more outs in the first five games than Opening Day starter Jon Lester.

Wilson's been light's out, allowing only a single and a pair of walks while striking out five batters. More importantly: He hasn't allowed a run.

The veteran left-hander pitched a perfect seventh inning against the Reds in Cincinnati Monday, blowing a 96 mph fastball by Joey Votto to end the frame.

It's a far cry for Wilson, who faced only two batters in the NLDS last fall and was left off the NLCS roster.

Wilson endured surprising and extreme struggles after being traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Cubs last summer. He walked an astonishing 19 batters in 17.2 innings while also giving up 18 hits and 10 earned runs.

The control issues were there from the outset, with a pair of walks in his Cubs debut Aug. 2 and he handed out 9 free passes in his first 11 innings. But things spiraled when the calendar flipped to September, with 5 walks and 5 runs allowed in his first three outings in the final month while recording only 5 outs.

An offseason away from the baseball diamond may have made all the difference.

"It was a struggle last year, so it was nice to get a little breather and kinda regroup and come back to spring with the same group," Wilson said. "I just kinda took a step back, a deep breath and relaxed. And that was it."

It's still too early to say for certain that he's back to being the pitcher that posted a 2.68 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12.3 K/9 and 13 saves in four months with the Tigers, but sometimes pushing the reset button is all that's needed.

Neither Wilson nor the Cubs had any answers to point to specifically on where the lack of control and effectiveness came from last year, but things can snowball pretty quickly in the middle of a tight pennant race when you're joining a new team in a new environment. 

"The thing is, I never lost confidence in myself," Wilson said. "Just had to get back on track. Staying in my routine, getting back and getting ready for the season."

If the 30-year-old southpaw can tap into that success he's had as a reliever for his entire big-league career up until the last two months of 2017, that's a gamechanger for the Cubs bullpen.

The Cubs currently feature three left-handed relievers (Wilson, Brian Duensing and Mike Montgomery), which means Wilson could either be trusted as a one-out guy against a dynamic left-handed hitter (like Votto or Bryce Harper) or he could carve through the heart of a team's order in the eighth inning or even be available to close on days Brandon Morrow is down. It'll just depend on what Joe Maddon and the Cubs need that game.

So while three games is hardly a statement, it's certainly a step in the right direction and any step in the right direction for Wilson is a huge boost for the Cubs bullpen.