CHICAGO — Kris Bryant is learning. Adjusting. Patching holes more quickly than major league teams can find his weaknesses.
And that’s the scary part right now for opponents of the Chicago Cubs. While the MVP talk for the sweet-swinging slugger grows in intensity, Bryant appears to be — gasp — getting better every day.
“I think that’s the big separator, is the ability to use the mental game to your advantage,” he said, “and determine the necessary adjustments you need to be a better player. And that’s just who I am. I don’t want to be average or mediocre. I want to continue to strive to be the best I can be and nothing is ever going to be good enough for me.”
Yup, that’s right. Bryant is batting .302 with 36 homers and a major league-best 112 runs scored, and he wants more. He has made at least five starts at four different positions, committing just 12 errors along the way, and he thinks he is only getting started.
Bryant’s stirring second half — he bashed 10 homers on his way to NL player of the month for August — has thrust the third baseman into the discussion for NL MVP, along with teammate Anthony Rizzo, Los Angeles shortstop Corey Seager and Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy. He could become just the sixth player to win rookie of the year and MVP in one or consecutive seasons, but the Las Vegas native isn’t too interested in the horse race for MVP.
“To even be mentioned in that category is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s very humbling and honestly, it just keeps me more determined to just go out there and do better and contribute in any way I can.”
The Cubs got Bryant with the second pick in the 2013 draft, with Mark Appel going No. 1 overall to Houston. While Appel was traded to Philadelphia in December and is still in search of his major league debut, Bryant rocketed through the minors and hit .275 with 26 homers and 99 RBIs while helping Chicago to the NL championship series last year.
It was a smashing debut by almost every measure, but what came next was even more impressive. Bryant led the NL with 199 strikeouts last year, so he worked on his swing even more. He has moved all over the field this year on defense and looked comfortable in every spot, providing valuable versatility for the major league-leading Cubs.
Asked about Bryant’s improvement from his rookie season, manager Joe Maddon pointed to several areas.
“Consistently shorter swing. More contact,” Maddon said. “He’s had smaller windows of chasing pitches out of the strike zone compared to last year where he did it more often. More recently, he’s been using the outfield gap, which is really impressive. So offensively, that’s what I’m seeing. Defensively, just better feet on the infield. He’s got really good feet now on the infield.”
The big test for the 24-year-old Bryant is still to come. He closed last season with a 3-for-23 slide, and then struggled in the playoffs. He batted .214 with five strikeouts as the Cubs were swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS.
In some ways, Bryant’s experience in the postseason was a launching point for his stellar sophomore year.
“Certainly, the playoff experience last year helped in terms of you know that’s probably as high as my nerves will be,” said Bryant, who homered in the All-Star Game against White Sox ace Chris Sale. “This year I just feel a lot more calmer at the plate.”
The last player to go directly from rookie of the year to MVP was Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who accomplished the feat when he was voted AL MVP in 2008. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was the general manager in Boston when the Red Sox selected Pedroia in the second round of the 2004 draft, and he is enjoying his front-row seat for Bryant’s accelerated career path.
“He’s helping us win in so many different ways,” Epstein said. “Obviously coming up big of late, which is great to see. So he deserves all the accolades that are coming his way and that may eventually come his way. But I think he’d probably be the first one to tell you that he wants the team awards, he wants the team recognition.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap