From the Pages of Vine Line: Kris Bryant, Confidence Game

Bryant,-Kris

(Photo by Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)

The Cubs’ 2013 first-round draft pick, Kris Bryant, picked up right where he left off in college. After mashing 31 home runs at the University of San Diego—10 more than the next-best total—the 21-year-old enjoyed a .336/.390/.688 line (AVG/OBP/SLG) with nine homers and 32 RBI in 146 plate appearances at three minor league levels. He wrapped up the season hitting .333/.387/.719 with five homers and five doubles for the High-A Daytona Cubs, the Florida State League champs. Bryant will now join the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, which starts Oct. 8 and runs until mid-November. The following originally ran in the September issue of Vine Line.

Mike Bryant was relieved when his son’s comments were taken with a grain of salt. The supportive but equally protective father of Cubs first-rounder Kris Bryant got a little uneasy when his boy, the second overall pick of the 2013 MLB Draft, answered a question about his readiness for major league action during an introductory press conference.

“I obviously think I could play in the big leagues right now. I have that type of confidence in myself,” Kris Bryant said. “But that’s not my decision. I’ll leave that up to the guys in charge.”

It’s not as if Mike doesn’t have faith in his son. On the contrary, there may not be another person on the planet—Kris included—who has more confidence in the young slugger’s abilities on a baseball field. Mike just didn’t want his son to be misunderstood or to make a bad first impression with his new team.

“I’m glad it was taken in its context because that can come off as being brash, and that’s not Kris,” he said. “He’s a totally humble person. I think that just stems from his confidence.”

In the Genes
Most people can probably understand where the younger Bryant was coming from. Really, anyone would feel confident if they put up the kind of numbers he did last season.

Before being welcomed into the Cubs fold, the former University of San Diego slugger lit the college baseball world afire. Even with NCAA-enforced bat modifications that seemed to limit everyone else’s power numbers, Bryant hit 31 home runs in his junior year—10 more than anyone else in Division I baseball. To put that into perspective, of the eight teams that qualified for the College World Series, five—including the eventual champion UCLA Bruins—hit fewer than 31 bombs as a team. In addition, Bryant led the nation in runs (80), slugging percentage (.820) and walks (66).

A few days after signing his first major league deal, Bryant capped his collegiate career by capturing the Golden Spikes Award, given every season to the best amateur player in the nation.

But despite his astonishing numbers, Bryant said he isn’t entirely surprised by what he has accomplished so far. After all, the game of baseball runs in his family. His father, Mike, spent two seasons in the Red Sox organization and considers himself a baseball nut—a characteristic he passed on to his son.

Like many top prospects, the 21-year-old Bryant spent the majority of his Little League days playing above his age level against stiffer competition. Between that and working with his dad, a private hitting instructor (who, to nobody’s surprise, has added a few clients since his son’s success), Bryant’s ability to adapt at the plate progressed steadily.

“Growing up, I always played up with the older guys. My dad always preached, ‘Play with the best players,’” Bryant said. “I think when I was maybe 10 years old, I started to see some really good 12-year-old curveballs. I really focused on creating that skill of plate discipline, and it’s obviously carried over from high school and college.”

Bryant’s mature approach at the plate shouldn’t come as a surprise given his laser focus and deep understanding of the game.
“He really takes instruction well,” Mike said. “When he jumps on something, he can adjust within a game, usually from pitch to pitch.”

Wise Beyond His Years
Despite the Las Vegas native’s immense talent and love for the game, education was still a priority in the Bryant household. The slugger was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 18th round out of high school, but the family universally agreed it was in his best interests to attend college.

“They didn’t play until the homework got done,” said Kris’ mother, Susie. “We always hoped the baseball would get him a scholarship. [Education] was very important to him.”

Armed with a 4.78 GPA and an uncanny ability to drive the ball out of any ballpark, Bryant chose to attend the University of San Diego, where he made an immediate impact. After his freshman year, in which he batted .365/.482/.599 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with nine home runs and 17 doubles in 197 plate appearances, he was named WCC Co-Player and Co-Freshman of the Year, a First-Team Freshman All-American and a Third-Team All-American.

Bryant’s ascent to becoming one of college baseball’s most dangerous hitters continued in his sophomore season. He racked up another 14 home runs and produced a hitting line of .366/.483/.671. At this point, Bryant, who pegged himself as “a little pull-happy” entering college, started taking a different approach to his at-bats, which opened up an even bigger window for success.

“I tried to yank the ball a little too much,” the right-hander said. “But there was a game my sophomore year against [the University of] San Francisco [in which] I hit a homer to right-center, and I knew I could start hitting balls to right field.”

Finding the other half of the field made all the difference in his standout junior season—especially considering he saw fewer and fewer pitches to hit as his home run total mounted. As a result, Bryant became more selective, taking more pitches and drawing more walks. San Diego coach Rich Hill even put his star hitter in the leadoff spot partway through the season so he would be harder to pitch around. Bryant, however, made the most of the situation.

“The biggest thing for me was that I just focused on getting that mistake pitch that pitchers were throwing to me, and I felt like I did that almost every time they threw one over the white,” Bryant said. “I was extremely pleased with that, and it’s going to help me in the future.”

President Bryant
Being the second-overall pick does come with its drawbacks—for example, Bryant had to undergo an extensive background check. The Cubs are no different from any other major company. When an organization is about to make a large investment in an employee, it’s essential they know as much about that person as possible. And when a baseball team has the privilege of the second-overall pick in the MLB draft, it’s vital they don’t make a mistake.

“He was vetted more than the president,” Mike Bryant joked. “They were talking to his high school math teacher, English teacher, his coaches—all his coaches—all his coaches at San Diego, his teachers at San Diego, everybody.”

Despite a well-documented dearth of power pitching within the organization, the Cubs bypassed University of Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray to select Bryant, a toolsy third baseman who was unanimously viewed as the best hitting prospect in the draft. Though the selection of a position player might have surprised some, the Cubs’ upper management never wavered.

“Without telling you exactly how our draft board lined up, we were never going to go into the draft going on need,” said Cubs Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod. “Ultimately, we’re going to make the decisions that we feel are best for this organization, both in the short and long term, and Kris Bryant was the player for us when it came to that pick.”

McLeod said he’d seen Bryant play in high school and watched him at showcases like the Area Code Games. In addition, the power hitter quickly became a regular topic of discussion in scouting circles. That kind of hype invites lofty—and often unrealistic—expectations. This is where having a dad who has been through the same sorts of things comes in handy.

“He’s kind of taught me the way to go about my journey, to avoid potholes that he stepped in,” Bryant said. “He’s been a great resource, and [agent Scott Boras and the Cubs front office] have been giving me great advice, and I’m thankful for it.”

Under the updated collective bargaining agreement put in place after the 2011 season, all draft picks for the first 10 rounds are slotted suggestively, meaning MLB gives teams a prorated signing estimate—or what they think each pick is worth. Teams can spend more than the estimated total, but face penalties as significant as the loss of future draft picks if they go too far over. As a result, most players generally sign for their estimated draft value, or “slot.” Bryant’s negotiations took a little longer than some had hoped, but that’s not uncommon when working with an agent like Boras, a power broker who traditionally exercises all options before signing on the dotted line.

So on July 12, just days before the signing deadline, the Cubs locked Bryant into a slot-estimated $6.7 million deal, making him the highest-paid player in the draft (No. 1 pick Mark Appel signed for under his projection). But the Cubs’ top draft pick said the newfound influx of cash won’t sidetrack his aspirations.

“There are a lot of distractions in baseball, and you really just have to focus on going out there and playing your best and having fun,” Bryant said. “I’ve grown up with some great people in my life, and they’ve taught me the right ways. I will continue being the person I am and work hard for the Cubs.”

When, Not If
A lot of young players have a tendency to work on the facets of the game at which they already excel. But Bryant, a player viewed as an elite bat with an average infield glove, spends just as much time working on his defense.

“I take as much pride in my defense as I do in my hitting,” Bryant said. “It kind of goes under the radar because you see the type of hitter I am, but I take a tremendous amount of pride in my defense. I’ve played [third base] my whole life. It’s a challenge for me, and I’m always up for that challenge.”

At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, Bryant is a very athletic ballplayer, but scouting reports knock his footwork in the infield. Most experts project he’ll ultimately end up in the outfield. But Cubs manager Dale Sveum, who was on hand when Bryant took batting practice and infield with the team shortly after signing his deal, came away impressed with what he saw.

“Right now, watching him, I don’t see any problems with the way he plays third base,” said Sveum, a former major league infielder. “His feet, his arm, it all plays. His athletic ability, watching him do body control plays, to be able to throw sidearm and all that—for a big guy, he can do a lot of things.”

Most elite ballplayers come up playing predominantly shortstop, but Mike Bryant bucked the trend and made sure his son got experience all over the diamond. Though Bryant is currently playing third base with High-A Daytona—and management said they’d likely keep him there for the foreseeable future—his versatile background might pay dividends in the long run. That ability to play multiple positions could hasten his trek to the big leagues, especially considering the abundance of talented left-side infielders within the Cubs system.

Where the organization places their newly minted No. 4 prospect (according to MLB.com) doesn’t appear to be of concern to Bryant. He has no problem helping out at any spot. He just wants to play.

“I’’m going to play where they tell me to play. I know it might be a cliché answer, but it really is the truth: Any ballplayer should listen to their coach,” Bryant said. “I’m going to go out there, if it’s at third base, I’m going to play as hard as I can. The outfield, first base, pitcher, I’ll play as hard as I can.”

There’s no doubt Bryant knows how to hit a baseball. He’s been doing it his whole life. So now the question is when are Cubs fans going to see him for the first time at Wrigley Field? In less then one month, Bryant has already moved from the Arizona Rookie League to Short-Season Boise to High-A Daytona. Despite that quick series of promotions, the organization is adamant they are going to take their time with the slugger, just like they have with every other elite young talent they’ve acquired.

But one thing is certain: If Bryant were running the show, he’d be there already.

—Phil Barnes

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