They’re best friends. They’re baseball superstars. They have a satirical souvenir company named after them. They are one of baseball’s best and favorite tandems. And they are currently up against each other in the NL MVP race. They are Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Though it was just over a year ago, it’s hard to remember a time when these two young sluggers were not peanut butter to each other’s jelly. In the short time that they’ve played together, they’ve helped usher in a new and exciting era of Cubs baseball.
Things are winding down on the North Side, and Cubs fans can now patiently sit back and bask in the glow of the fact that it is virtually certain that for the second year in a row, Wrigleyville will be buzzing come the first week of October instead of closing up shop. No playoff race tensions? Nothing more than a minor annoyance instead of an all-out existential crisis each time the Cardinals put together one more win? It’s a feeling that is not afforded to many baseball fans come September in the way it is afforded to Cubs fans this season (even Rangers fans are still a bit nervous with an 8.5 game lead in the AL West). Cubs fans are instead enjoying their little vacation from the dramatics of September by entertaining themselves with conversations about something else that many other less fortunate teams are not afforded very often: Which of their two baseball superstars is the most likely candidate for the NL MVP award this offseason?
The case is compelling. Bryant and Rizzo are both extremely successful in their own right, and find themselves a part of one of the most successful teams in baseball this season, making each of their individual cases for MVP all the more pertinent.
The competition in the National League among the likes of Corey Seager who is helping propel the Dodgers through a playoff race in his rookie season, as well as Daniel Murphy who as much as Cubs fans may have a certain type of disdain for, is having an incredible follow-up campaign to his impressive October, is steep. But it’s nothing these two can’t handle.
For a moment though, let’s just look at Bryant and Rizzo as up against each other, and see which one logically has the best chance to take home the hardware this offseason. Let’s start by taking a look at the raw data on these two players side-by-side before getting into each one’s respective arguments:
The case for Rizzo is a strong one just in the context of the rest of the competition. He’s slugging well over .500, he’ll finish the season in the 30/100 club even if the season ended next week, he strikes out at a very low clip and he has a solid plate approach that offers the trifecta of power, the ability to take walks, and the patience to know what pitches to swing at. Rizzo is the type of profile that would be a star on nearly any team in baseball, it’s almost a disadvantage to him that plays for the second best offensive team in the game. It doesn’t necessarily hinder his contributions to the game, however they simply aren’t as pronounced as they might be on a poorer offense.
Rizzo’s biggest strike against him, and really, we are just picking nits here, is that his defense isn’t exceptional. Rizzo plays defense at one of the easiest positions on the infield, and according to Baseball Prospectus, Rizzo is doing so at just league average, posting just a 0.0 FRAA.
What really makes Rizzo stand out from not just Bryant, but some of his competition as well, is his clubhouse presence. Rizzo is a strong leader, and a driving force of positivity in a clubhouse that has seen quite the revolving door of young talent, as well as a plethora of different age groups and personality types. Being the second most tenured member of the Cubs, Rizzo has grown with many of these men, young and old, and weathered through the storm of dismal and dreary Cubs seasons that many fans would like to put behind them. Rizzo is a pillar not only in the Cubs community on the field, but off the field as well. He is still, in my opinion, for these reasons, the face of the franchise. If the votes are calculated on more than simply the numbers and figures in the boxes above, Rizzo holds a rich case for MVP in 2016.
From a baseball standpoint, it’s quite hard to look at the numbers Bryant is posting in just his first full season in the big leagues, even in isolation, and not think that he is an absolute runaway for the award. Bryant has improved upon his outstanding rookie campaign which won him the Rookie of the Year award in 2015, and has been one of the central components in this Cubs teams success in 2016. Bryant will most certainly finish the season with 40 home runs and will likely make it to 100 RBIs, giving him a bit of an edge over Rizzo in just power category alone.
The really impressive part of Bryant’s game which may just be the factor that gives him the edge above not just Rizzo, but the rest of his competition, his his defensive versatility. It’s well known Cubs manager Joe Maddon loves to play with everyone on this roster’s defensive skills, even Travis Wood, but no one has the type of success with this flexibility at positions of such pivotal importance day in and day out that Bryant does. That’s not to discount Javier Baez or Ben Zobrist’s titles as Cubs utility men, they’re exceptional at what they do also. But as far as the MVP race is concerned, Bryant has played six defensive positions with ease in 2016, while Rizzo has stayed stationary at first base all season.
While Rizzo has been the face of the Cubs franchise as a whole, Bryant certainly represents the new era of youth and exceptional talent that the Cubs ushered in last May, which has thrust them into the discussion of one of the best Cubs teams in history.
As I said, the case is quite strong for both of these young men, but the efforts Bryant has made on the field to his team as a whole may be the ones that put him over the edge. After all MVP stands for Most Valuable Player, and contributing in the amount of ways that Bryant has for the Cubs in 2016, and quite successfully, he certainly is the most valuable asset the Cubs possess in my eyes.
Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports.