CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – It was mid-March, and with the start of the 2016 Major League Baseball regular season only weeks away, the vibe inside the Chicago Cubs’ spring training clubhouse at the Cubs Park Riverview complex in Mesa, Ariz., was one of unbridled optimism.
The Cubs’ players were happily doing interviews with members of the media, brimming with confidence after a 97-win season in 2015 while not showing – outwardly, at least – any signs of the pressure that came with being the prohibitive favorite to win the franchise’s first World Series Championship in 108 years.
Among those players was infielder/outfielder Kris Bryant, a 2009 Perfect Game All-American and the Cubs’ No. 2 overall pick in the first-round of the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft; he was coming off a National League Rookie of the Year season in 2015. Bryant, standing in front of his locker in the crowded clubhouse that March morning, patiently entertained questions from any number of inquisitors, including one from Perfect Game.
“I really feel a lot more laid-back. I kind of know most of the guys here, and obviously playing a full year with them definitely helps so it’s a little different for me,” he told PG when asked his thoughts on the upcoming season compared to where he was a year earlier. “Last year, with all the attention, I don’t necessarily know that I wanted that. I just wanted to go out there and be another guy and this year I feel like I can do that.”
Being just “another guy” worked wonders for Bryant and his Cubs’ teammates this past season. The North-siders won 103 regular season games and the NL Central Division Championship; beat the San Francisco Giants in four games in the best-of-5 NL Division Series; got past the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in the best-of-7 NL Championship Series, and outlasted the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, winning a dramatic, extra-inning Game 7 to bring the World Championship to Chicago’s North Side for the first time since 1908.
And on Thursday night, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) recognized the role Bryant played in that long-awaited championship by voting him in as the winner of the NL Most Valuable Player Award. He becomes the first player to win a ROY Award and an MVP Award in back-to-back seasons since the Boston Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia accomplished the rare double-dip in 2007-08.
On the American League side, Los Angeles Angels centerfielder and former PG WWBA tournament standout Mike Trout emerged on top in the Most Valuable Player Award voting, winning for the second time.
Bryant won the NL ROY Award unanimously in 2015 and came very close to winning the NL MVP Award in unanimous fashion, as well. He received 29 of 30 first-place votes and totaled 415 points in the final balloting, out-pointing Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy (one first-place vote, 245 points) and Los Angeles Dodgers rookie shortstop Corey Seager (240 points); Seager, a 2011 PG All-American, won the National League Rookie of the Year Award earlier in the week.
“It’s all downhill from here,” Bryant joked to reporters after receiving the news of winning the award. “This year has certainly been one of the best years of my life, winning the World Series, and now this is just icing on the cake. I look forward to really enjoying this offseason because I don’t know if this year will ever happen to me (again).”
He becomes the fourth player with deep Perfect Game roots to win both ROY and MVP awards, joining the Giants’ Buster Posey (2010, 2012), the Angels’ Mike Trout (2012, 2014) and the Nationals’ Bryce Harper (2012, 2015). He is now in the company of the Reds’ Joey Votto (2010), Posey (2012), the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen (2013), the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (2014) and Harper as former PG standouts that have won an NL MVP Award.
And speaking of the amazing and remarkable Trout, the 24-year-old, five-time American League All-Star center-fielder picked up his second AL MVP Award in three years (2014, 2016) – he was the AL MVP runner-up in 2012 (his ROY season), 2013 and 2015.
Trout (19 first-place votes, 356 points) was voted-in to receive the award in close balloting with Boston Red Sox center-fielder Mookie Betts (nine first-place, 311 points) and Houston Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve (227). He and Toronto Blue Jays’ third baseman Josh Danielson (2015) are the two PG alumni that have won an AL MVP Award. Trout also won the award despite the fact the Angels won only 74 regular-season games.
“I was speechless,” Trout told reporters on a conference call. “… To win it one time, it’s hard to do. Twice? You saw my emotions tonight; it was something special. All the hard work, you just put your mind to it and you want to be the best and hopefully at the end of the season you’re in the conversation.”
Already a two-time NL All-Star in two big-league seasons, the 24-year-old Bryant slashed .292/.385/.554 with 39 home runs, 102 runs batted in and an NL-high 121 runs scored. Those numbers are all better than what he put up in 2015, and he also cut his number of strikeouts down to 154 from a league-high 199.
In 17 postseason games, Bryant hit a combined .308 (20-for-65) with three home runs, five doubles and eight RBI; he went 7-for-26 (.269) with two solo home runs and six runs scored in the seven World Series games. MVP balloting is completed before the postseason begins.
Bryant, a native of Las Vegas, was at six Perfect Game events in 2008-09, including two appearances at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Ohio Warhawks, and marquee performances at the 2009 PG National Showcase in Minneapolis and the 2009 PG All-American Classic in San Diego. At the ’09 A-A Classic, Bryant hit cleanup in the West Team’s batting order, one spot behind Harper, another Las Vegas PG All-American.
“It’s important for you, especially in high school, to get on that stage and play better competition, and those experiences certainly offered it to me,” Bryant told PG in March. “If I would have gone out and played only against my high school competition I don’t think I would have gotten any better until I got to college. It was important for me to get out there and play against some really good competition – with a wood bat – and get used to that. I’m a big believer in getting out and playing in those showcases.”
It almost boggles the mind how Trout seems to get better with each passing MVP-caliber season. He slashed .315/.441/.550 with 29 home runs, five triples, 32 doubles, 100 RBI, 123 runs scored and 30 stolen bases, finishing just one bomb shy of re-joining the 30-30 club (home runs-stolen bases) for the first time since 2012.
His 123 runs and .441 on-base percentage led the major leagues (the third time in five seasons he’s been tops in runs scored) and his 116 walks led the American League. In 811 major league games – including 40 during a late call-up in 2011 – Trout has posted a slash-line of .306/.405/.557 with 168 home runs and 143 stolen bases.
Trout, who enjoyed a stellar prep career at Millville (N.J.) High School, played in eight Perfect Game WWBA tournaments in 2007 and 2008 with the New Jersey-based Tri-State Arsenal, including a pair of stops at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
“Those were great experiences,” Trout has told PG. “Just to get out of New Jersey and see the competition from all across the country and to compete against other players that were doing the same things you were trying to do: get to the professional level. It was just good to get that exposure.”