Kris Bryant is having a very good season but the superlatives and decorations that piled up at his feet the last two seasons aren't coming. Of late, there's been a minor movement on Twitter to change this (or maybe just to remark on the fickle nature of our attention and affection as sports fans) by drawing comparisons between his 2017 stats (usually the raw, unadjusted offensive numbers) and the ones he put up on the way to the National League MVP award last year.
To this, of course, there's been a bunch of pushback, from people noting the change in the offensive environment over the last two years, as well as some noting lower defensive ratings (depending on the source) for Bryant and the lower place he's taken on Wins Above Replacement Player leaderboards.
So, which side is right? Neither. I'm stunned, in fact, by the extent to which both sides of the nebulous debate over Bryant's season are compromised by a lack of nuanced and thoughtful examination of his case. Here are some crucial facts:
1. Bryant is a fine third baseman, with good physical tools and a work ethic to match, but he struggles to consistently make certain kinds of plays, largely because of his size. That's been an especially glaring issue lately, because …
2. The Cubs have needed to play him at third base almost exclusively this season. Last year, when their biggest injury loss was Kyle Schwarber, they needed him in the outfield, and Bryant showed that his speed, instincts, and preparation could make him an elite defender there.
This year, though, the team has mostly had a very crowded outfield picture, while both Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist have missed significant time on the infield. That's meant that Bryant has been needed on an everyday basis at a position that, while his primary and preferred one, isn't his best.
3. Injuries have dinged him throughout the year. I often compare Bryant to Willie Mays, not because he's on that level in terms of talent or production, but because of the big picture of his impact on a team. He's an exceptional all-around player who can change a game in any way, at any time. He's also a guy on whom pressure was piled to be the savior the moment he arrived in the big leagues, and (impressively) the rare young player who has proved able to bear that burden. Winning has followed Bryant, just as it followed Mays early in his career.
Mays occasionally showed what all of that team-carrying cost him, though. He'd have unexplained and severe bouts of exhaustion. He'd play through what were really fairly serious injuries, and his production would suffer (though he'd still be a better option than any of his team's alternatives). Bryant does that, too. He's missed games this year with pneumonia (after playing all of a three-and-a-half-hour rainy night game at Wrigley in the early spring), a mild ankle sprain, and a sprained pinkie. And in fact, it's likely that playing through these things has prevented him from playing to the top of his ability.
4. He's still making a number of adjustments, with the goal of becoming an even more dominant player (and especially, hitter). They're not allowing him to have his maximal potential impact on games right now, but they're aimed at allowing him to go to the next level in the medium and long term. Last year, he worked on flattening his bat path through the strike zone. This year, he's been focused a lot on letting the ball travel more, accepting his walks, and being able to use right field.
That was a weakness in his game as recently as a year ago, though he ended up having some crucial hits the other way in the playoffs. That deeper contact point has cost him some power, and the changes he's making (both physically and mentally) have stopped him from dominating in big spots. That doesn't mean he's failed, or that his mentality is a problem. It's just that it's going to help later, rather than right now.
No, Bryant shouldn't be in the MVP conversation this year, unless he gets very hot for the final four weeks. That doesn't mean he's not a great player, though, and it doesn't even mean that he's diminished from his MVP showing last year. It just means that he's working through a lot of things, and stands as a reminder of how hard it is to be truly great in baseball.
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