Glove story: Anthony Rizzo on path to National League MVP award

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Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo catches a foul ball while standing on the wall Tuesday at Wrigley Field. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Anthony Rizzo made another one of his superhero defensive plays Tuesday, catching a foul ball that had no business being caught. The only surprise was that he didn’t foil a plot to blow up the planet while he was at it.

A ball hit by Milwaukee’s Keon Broxton sent the Cubs first baseman toward the Wrigley Field seats. Rizzo stepped onto the sawed-off infield wall, leaned on his right leg to backhand the ball, somehow pivoted one-footed atop the wall without falling into the paying customers and then jumped to the dirt. He later compared it to gymnastics. It looked more like logrolling to me.

It’s a good thing Rizzo does this sort of thing once in a while. The spectacular should help remind us how good he is with the everyday. But no matter how difficult everyday defense is, many people still equate it with something mundane, like everyday shoe tying or everyday sandwich making.

One of the fun debates around town is whether Rizzo or teammate Kris Bryant should win the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. Offensively, they’re extremely close. As of Friday, Bryant was hitting .296 to Rizzo’s .291. Bryant had more home runs, a league-leading 30 to Rizzo’s 25, but Rizzo had more runs batted in (86) than Bryant (78). They were two-three in the NL in on-base percentage plus slugging – Rizzo at .960, Bryant at .956.

You’ll notice that when the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy (.344, 22 homers, 87 RBI and a .990 OPS) is mentioned in the local debate, it’s often as the guy who could spoil the party. That might be because 1) Cubs fans can be as parochial as a neighborhood parish or 2) they think Murphy is a mediocre second baseman. I’m going with Door No. 1.

You can make a much better argument for Rizzo than Bryant or Murphy if you tear yourself away from offensive stats and pay attention to what Rizzo does regularly at first base. Tearing away isn’t easy. Defense often is the first casualty in MVP discussions these days.

Rizzo is a Gold Glove-quality first baseman. He scoops balls out of the dirt so regularly and so easily that it has almost become pedestrian. Bryant doesn’t come close to Rizzo’s defensive abilities. In fact, if Cubs fans could stop basking in Bryant’s sparkling eyes for a moment, they’d see that Colorado’s Nolan Arenado has very similar numbers to Bryant’s and is a much better third baseman than Bryant is. Three Gold Gloves-to-none better.

This is the problem when you’re picking nits. The nits start looking as large as horses and they start feeling personal. The reality is that Bryant and Rizzo are both having outstanding years. The Cubs wouldn’t be where they are – 13 games up on the Cardinals in the NL Central as of Friday — without either man.

But the MVP is a competition, and so we parse.

It’s nice to be a great player, which Arenado is, but to be an MVP, it helps to play for a great team, which Arenado doesn’t. So, for the purposes of our discussion, goodbye, Nolan.

Do we care about defense? Kind of. Should we care about defense as much as offense? We should, but we don’t, not even close. And that’s a shame. It’s not nearly as bad as in the NBA, where no one cares about your lack of interest in defense if you average 30 points (hello, James Harden). But expertise with a baseball glove does not get nearly the respect it deserves.

That’s why Rizzo’s highlight defensive act can only help him in the MVP voting. Glitz sells, even among voters. And those voters might recall that last year, again against the Brewers at Wrigley, he jumped onto the rolled-up tarp, stepped onto the infield wall and caught the ball as he fell into the crowd. More national attention. More YouTube love.

Which catch was better, that one or Tuesday’s? Answer: Yes.

“I’m always trying to make those type of plays,’’ Rizzo told WGN-TV after the most-recent gem. “Those are the type of plays that get you on ‘SportsCenter,’ get you on ESPN. It’s really cool to do.’’

The Nationals are very good this season, which has helped Murphy get even more MVP attention (at least outside of the North Side of Chicago). His offensive statistics are hard to beat. But if defense were art, he’d be a finger painter and Rizzo would have exhibitions at museums.

Rizzo is the most complete player playing for the team with the best record in baseball. Sounds like the definition of an MVP.

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