The Case for Kris Bryant for National League MVP

Last week, we ran a series of posts laying out the case for the most compelling candidates for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award (links to all of which are available here). Today, we continue with the National League MVP Award.

Note that, as with last week’s posts, these are designed to make an affirmative argument for their subject and are not intended to serve as comprehensive looks at every candidate on their own. The authors tasked with writing these posts may not even believe their subject actually deserves to win, but they were brave enough to make the case anyway. The goal of these posts is to lay out the potential reasons for voters to consider a variety of candidates and to allow the readers to decide which argument is most persuasive.

Not every award race has an obvious front-runner. Like, take the American League Cy Young Award. That’s as tight a race as you can imagine, so any number of candidates can emerge. For any one of them, you can go in asking, why should this guy be the winner? I think the National League MVP Award is different. The way I see it, the conversation begins with Kris Bryant. He’s out in front, so you have to wonder, why shouldn’t this guy be the winner? Perfectly legitimate question. Trying to answer it just leads you right back to the start.

To put forward another candidate, you have to first try to knock Bryant down a few pegs. It just can’t reasonably be done, on account of Bryant having been the best all-around performer in his league. Conveniently, this can be imagined as a two-player race — by far the two strongest arguments support Bryant and Corey Seager. Seager’s been outstanding, but Bryant’s advantage should be comfortable. You hardly have to drift away from his own page of statistics.

Start with the obvious. What’s Bryant good at? He’s known mostly for his hitting, and he has a top-three wRC+ in the NL. This year he’s trimmed almost a third off his strikeouts while increasing his power output, so now there’s barely anything left for him to do. He walks, he hits, he slugs. There are few more intimidating opponents in the box.

What really puts Bryant over the top, though, is how much else he does. He’s not just a hitter. Daniel Murphy is also an excellent hitter, for example. He’s probably been the MVP of the Nationals. But Bryant is smart on the bases, and he also just about never hits into a double play. For that you can partially credit his fly-ball tendencies. Regardless, by our overall baserunning metric, Bryant ranks in the top four. He doesn’t contribute in the most obvious way, like Billy Hamilton. He’s more sneaky-valuable. Any value is value.

And there’s the defensive work. Say what you will about the Cubs leaving Bryant in the minors to begin 2015, but it really did seem like he could stand to improve in the field. Well, as a major leaguer, Bryant has been defensively excellent. Last year, he rated well at third base. That helps to support the 2016 performance. Bryant’s been good again at third base. The numbers also like what he’s done at first base and in the outfield. Bryant has aided the Cubs with his versatility, technically having played at six different positions, and while Bryant hasn’t regularly occupied any premium position, he’s still in the top fourth in defensive value, as we calculate it. Kris Bryant contributes everywhere. Sluggers are great. Well-rounded versatile sluggers are MVPs.

It should go without saying that no MVP race should ever be decided by WAR alone. It just isn’t a sufficiently precise statistic. But there’s nothing wrong with using it as a starting point, yes? Bryant is the National League leader in WAR. Now, on the leaderboard, his advantage over Seager is slight. That’s why Seager has an argument in the first place. But consider: Both UZR and DRS agree that Bryant has been a good all-around defender. With Seager, UZR thinks he’s been a great shortstop, but DRS thinks he’s been average. The Inside Edge numbers think he’s been below-average. WAR considers UZR alone, which means it’s painting the most optimistic picture. If you knock Seager down a few runs, the gap widens. Though he’s been the one playing the premium position, that still hasn’t been enough.

By a mentally-adjusted WAR, Bryant might have a lead of a full win. Very possibly more. There’s no specific tipping point with this stuff, but the wider the gap, the stronger the argument for Bryant. And he’s the front-runner in the first place.

I should address a couple things. One, there’s the matter of situational context. Not long ago I wrote a post observing that Bryant had been one of the least-clutch players in modern history. That probably shouldn’t count for nothing. Since then, however, Bryant has improved his own standing. Just as important, Seager also has a very low season Clutch rating. Though Bryant has just a 65 wRC+ in high-leverage situations, we find Seager at 53. To whatever extent you want to dock Bryant for maybe not coming up big at the most important times, it’s not like Seager has blown him away in that department. Clutch performance isn’t tipping these scales.

Then there’s the matter of the Cubs’ general dominance. This is sort of the opposite of the argument that works against Mike Trout. No matter how good Mike Trout is, he can’t make the Angels win. And no matter how bad Kris Bryant could be, he couldn’t make the Cubs lose. The Cubs lead the NL Central by 16 games. I don’t think the Reds have even won 16 games. No one has been within five games of the Cubs since May 28. You’re going to hear people talk about how Bryant shouldn’t be the MVP because his team is simply too good around him.

I don’t like it. We’ve long supported Trout, arguing that the MVP is an individual-player award. On that foundation, Bryant also shouldn’t lose any points. There’s nothing in the MVP voting criteria that demands candidates come only from teams on the bubble. Bryant has been more valuable to the Cubs than any other player in his league has been to his own team. It’s just that Bryant’s teammates combined have also been more valuable than any other group of teammates. Related to this, value isn’t just about furthering World Series odds. The point isn’t just to win the World Series. The point is to win as many games as possible, to have as strong a season from start to finish as possible. So for these purposes I don’t care much about game “leverage.” Bryant has been worth the most wins. The point is to accumulate wins.

There’s just about nothing that Kris Bryant hasn’t done. There’s just about nothing that Kris Bryant can’t do. The strongest argument against Bryant’s MVP case is that his teammates are all too good, which has nothing to do with Bryant at all. Congratulations to Corey Seager on having an absolutely unbelievable year. He’s one of the most valuable players on the planet. He hasn’t been Bryant-level valuable. There shouldn’t be any shame in second place.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Bryant checks off so many boxes for me as MVP:

–Joe’s thrown him at 1B, SS, 3B, LF, RF, CF and he’s been a very good defender
–Will probably end with a slash line close to .300 / 40 / 100 for those who don’t like advanced metrics
–Like you said Jeff, has cut his K%
–His base running is simply awesome. It is a treat watching both Heyward and Bryant on the base paths. They always take the extra base, steal smartly, and are situationally aware.

I read that if Bryant wins the MVP he will be the first player to win the Golden Spikes (college POY), Minor League POY, MLB ROY, and MLB MVP in successive seasons. I think he deserves it.

6 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

You got to watch Heyward run the bases this year? Did Maddon use him as pinch runner?

Seriously though, Bryant really does check all the boxes. He’s been a ton of fun to watch play – particularly that recent stretch in August(?) where he was just completely locked in.