From the Pages of Vine Line: Kris Bryant is the Complete Package

VLBryant(Photo by Stephen Green)

There’s a big divide between Kris Bryant the media creation and Kris Bryant the man. As an exercise, let’s separate these dueling Bryants into column A and column B.

In column A, you have the burgeoning celebrity. This is the young superstar who hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 home runs and 99 RBI in his All-Star rookie campaign. The 6-foot-5 matinee idol whose crystal blue eyes have spawned multiple Twitter accounts. The man who collected the Golden Spikes (given to the nation’s best amateur player), Minor League Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards in consecutive seasons. This is the Scott Boras client whose image was plastered across an enormous Adidas billboard staring down at Wrigley Field from Addison Street to start the 2015 season—before he had even cracked the 40-man roster. He’s the Sports Illustrated cover boy who has done viral videos for Lyft and Red Bull—posing as a taxi driver, swimming with sharks and masquerading as a European transfer player at Mesa Community College—and who was recently named the face of Express clothing.

It’s a compelling package, and, like with any celebrity, it’s easy to assume you know Bryant from this well-publicized and carefully groomed construction.

But the Bryant in column B is markedly different. This is the quiet, usually smiling gentleman teammates see in the clubhouse. This Bryant is confident and likes to have fun, but he’s also polite, respectful and hesitant to draw attention to himself. He works hard and listens to his coaches. He’s the humble player who calls his dad after most games and recently got engaged to his high school sweetheart.

So how did Bryant B, the flesh-and-blood human being who is still working to adjust to this rapidly expanding new life, learn to embrace Bryant A? The 24-year-old has the remarkable ability, rare in someone so young, to separate what he does on the field from what he does off the field. He has no problem saying no to the things he doesn’t want to do, but he embraces the opportunities that sound fun, confident in the belief that taking time away from the game to clear his head will ultimately make him a better player.

“I completely leave the game at the field—other than, I’ll probably call my dad after the game and talk to him about it,” Bryant said. “After that, I’m done. I watch Netflix. We go out to dinner a lot, especially in Chicago. The food is awesome. I play a little guitar too. I just tinker around with some things, video games, that kind of thing.

“But there is never much time off the field when you’re not playing. You have a couple of hours after the game to watch some TV, go to sleep, wake up, go right to the field. It’s a crazy lifestyle, but a lifestyle I want to live.”

Of course, the celebrity Bryant persona is still quite new and will take some getting used to. So for now, he’s moving forward one step at a time and trying to remain laser-focused on getting better at his day job.

THE MACHINE
Everything about Bryant’s career so far has had a whiff of inevitability to it. At times, he’s seemed like a man among boys—even when he was still a boy himself.

Bryant’s father, Mike, a former minor-league outfielder in the Red Sox organization and a disciple of Ted Williams, loves to tell of how his son still holds the Las Vegas Little League record for home runs in a season. As a senior at Bonanza High School, Bryant hit .489 with 22 home runs and 51 RBI en route to AFLAC, Baseball America and USA Today high school All-American honors. In his junior (and final) year at the University of San Diego, he mashed 31 home runs, which seems like a reasonable total for a man with his size, power and uppercut swing—until you realize Bryant hit more homers than 223 out of 298 Division I baseball programs by himself and led the NCAA in eight different offensive categories, including runs, slugging percentage, total bases and walks.

After the Cubs selected him second overall in the 2013 draft, he continued to punish baseballs. From his rookie-league debut until his major-league call-up on April 17, 2015, Bryant hit an absurd .327/.426/.667 with 55 bombs and 152 RBI in 181 minor-league games.

“If you just look at him, he looks the part,” said Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, a 12-year major-league veteran who won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2002 with Toronto. “The guys that are the All-Stars and the Hall of Famers, they’re touched on the way out. He’s one of these guys who is just blessed with all the talent, and he’s got the right head on his shoulders. The sky is the limit, for sure.”

In some ways, Bryant was biomechanically engineered to be a major-league slugger. His father, who gives private lessons in his backyard batting cage in Las Vegas, has admitted to treating his son like a big-league hitter since he was a preteen. From the age of 5, Bryant was getting daily swing lessons and learning the intricacies of Williams’ seminal opus, The Science of Hitting. The main lesson—and one the slugger has internalized well—was to hit the ball hard and put it in the air.

Mike Bryant worked tirelessly to fine-tune his son’s trademark uppercut swing, designed to loft the ball with sufficient drive and backspin to carry it out of most parks, short of Yellowstone. The problem with that extreme uppercut is that it also creates a lot of swing and miss. Despite spending the first few games of the 2015 season at Triple-A Iowa, Bryant still led the NL in strikeouts with 199. While the young slugger understands strikeouts are an inevitable byproduct of the way he swings the bat, he did notice last season that he was missing on too many pitches in the strike zone.

“He’s talked a lot about staying flatter in the zone with his bat path,” Hinske said. “He has a tendency to uppercut his swing a little bit, so he wants to keep that barrel in the zone longer. He’s worked a lot in the offseason doing that. He does a stop-the-bat drill where he just tries to stop that barrel in the zone using his lower half to get there. He works at his craft, man. He’s a pro, and he’s got an idea.”

Both hitting coach John Mallee and Hinske agree that Bryant is almost the perfect pupil. He takes coaching well, and his problems are easy to fix because he’s so mechanically correct.

“His aptitude is tremendous,” Mallee said. “He studies the opposing pitcher, he takes a lot of pride in his pregame preparation, and he develops his own plan when he gets up in the game. If he sticks to his plan, he’s as good as anybody.”

That’s high praise for a man who came into the 2016 season with only 650 major-league plate appearances. But hitting exploding fastballs and gravity-defying sliders from the best pitchers on the planet takes more than just the right chromosomal mix. As the old adage goes, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 times, and no rookie gets through his initial tour of duty without hitting the skids for a few games.

Though Bryant famously didn’t log his first major-league home run until May 9 of last year, 21 games into his career, he actually still swung the bat well during that brief power outage. His season found its nadir between July 6 and Aug. 6, when he hit .168/.289/.295 with only two home runs and 38 strikeouts in 27 contests, dropping his season average 29 points in the process.

“He got in a little bit of a funk there, and the veterans picked him up and kind of showed him the way to get through it,” Mallee said. “When you have that much talent, if we can just not let him think of it as a big situation—[we want to] just let him go up there and see it and hit it and let his instincts take over.”

It would have been more than understandable if Bryant had started to press, as a young man trying to prove himself in the big leagues. But that’s what truly separates him from most of the other premier hitters around the league. He has an almost preternatural calm about him. Teammates rave about his ability to never get too high or too low, which allows him to easily shrug off the occasional 0 for 4.

“The mental game is huge in baseball, and he’s very strong-minded up there,” said teammate Kyle Schwarber. “It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re going bad. Everyone gets to that point of second-guessing themselves at some point. A couple of bad games here and there, and you start thinking about it too much. But he does a really good job of turning that switch back on and getting right back to it.”

Bryant also has a unique ability to made adjustments quickly if things get out of whack. When most hitters are battling their swing, it can take weeks in the cage and/or video room to find the microscopic grain of sand in the machine. But Bryant has such a good feel for his mechanics and is such a student of hitting that he can sometimes make at-bat-to-at-bat adjustments. This is a skill even other major leaguers marvel at, and it’s anomalous in someone so young.

“[Making those adjustments] is hard,” Schwarber said. “I mean, you’re seeing the best pitching from around the world. These guys are getting paid a lot of money to get you out, and you have to make adjustments on the fly because they start picking up on what your weaknesses are pretty quick.”

THE MAN
When a player appears to be a perfectly tuned hitting machine, it can be easy to forget he’s also a human being. While Bryant was racking up accolades last year, he was also adjusting to a completely different life, both on and off the field. Almost every pitcher he faced last season was new to him, meaning he had very little intelligence on how they would attack him and what their pitches would look like in real time. And that doesn’t even factor in what it feels like to stand in the batter’s box at Dodger Stadium for the first time.

“It’s great to get to know the pitchers better,” Bryant said. “It’s not just me going up there and saying, ‘Oh man, it’s Max Scherzer. I saw him on TV. He was on my fantasy team a couple of years ago.’ You know? He’s just another guy in the big leagues, and you have to approach it that way. Every pitcher is a nameless, faceless opponent, and that will be easier this year.

“That’s the biggest thing when you get up there and you start facing guys who are household names. Playing against guys like that, it’s really hard to get over that hump and realize that it’s just another game of baseball, just at a different level, with cameras everywhere and a whole lot of fans in the stands.”

One factor that made last season even more complicated was the constant scrutiny he was under. Every time Bryant came to the plate in 2016, it was like Christmas morning for the media and fans. What will he do this time? Can he clear the new left-field video board? When will he detonate the next walk-off bomb?

While the hype may not dissipate given his rookie performance and the expectations saddling this 2016 Cubs squad, Bryant is more of a known commodity this year, and there are plenty of other stars around him to pull focus.

“The whole hype thing and the tuning in to every at-bat, it’s something as a player, I don’t know if you really want that,” Bryant said. “You just want to go out there and play your game. I think this year will be a little bit more of that. Just let me go out there and play and do what I do on the field and kind of keep all that other stuff a little bit more quiet, which will be nice for me and the team.”

In some ways, baseball has always come easy to Bryant. But it’s nearly impossible to prepare a person for the constant stream of demands and opportunities that accompanies celebrity. And Bryant is undeniably a celebrity.

Though he is surprisingly grounded and calm, he still leaned heavily on his clubhouse mates to ease him through the adjustment period. It helped that he was far from the only rookie sensation on the team, as he came up in the same season as Addison Russell, Schwarber and Jorge Soler. Another plus was that the team was in the hunt all season long. There was little time for clubhouse hazing and rookie initiations (though the rookies did have to put on princess dresses for the occasional flight) with the club fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch.

“It definitely was easier because we had so many young guys, but it wasn’t just because of all the young guys,” Schwarber said. “The veteran presences around us brought us in. It was, ‘You’re part of this team, and let’s go.’

“It definitely makes it easier when you have a group of guys up here who are so worried about winning, they don’t really have time to waste. It’s time to go, and when we get up here, they don’t treat us any differently. They treat us with respect, and we treat them with respect.”

Bryant’s true partner in crime on the Cubs is Anthony Rizzo. The two fun-loving former top prospects bonded almost immediately last year, spawning the Bryzzo phenomenon, which has since been immortalized in a commercial for MLB.com.

“We just have fun, we’re young,” Bryant said. “We just have a good time on the field and goofing around in the locker room. It really isn’t just us though. There are so many people here and different personalities who like to goof around. But he’s a really good guy. He does a lot for the community. He’s someone I look up to in terms of that. He does so much for people and treats everybody with respect. It’s good to see that out of a superstar.”

Bryant is a firm believer in working hard when it’s time to work and getting completely away from the game during his downtime. That philosophy is not altogether different from the way manager Joe Maddon handles things, and it may be the key to a healthy major-league lifestyle. Across every sport, there have been plenty of athletes who have lost their way when the “A-Rod” or “Johnny Football” or “Star-bury” alter egos overwhelmed their real lives.

While the offseason was busy for Bryant, he did manage a little rest and relaxation. Aside from getting engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Jessica Delp, he said the best thing he did this winter was travel to Hawaii. He spent some time on the islands watching the pro surfing tour and paddle boarding, but he also tapped into his inner adrenaline junkie by taking helicopter rides and, yes, swimming with sharks—a little escapade that set the Cubs Twitterverse aflutter. When Bryant initially posted a video of his underwater encounter to his Instagram account, it looked as if he was swimming freely with the man-eaters. Rest assured, he was safely ensconced in a protective cage.

“I was not free-swimming with sharks,” Bryant said, laughing. “I don’t even know if they’d let you do that. No way I’d ever do that. But it was cool. There was a little mystery behind it, but I was definitely in the cage. I didn’t mind doing it. I wasn’t scared at all. I knew we’d be in a cage. I was more worried about the boat ride out there because I get super seasick. I was just like, ‘Just get me in the water, let me see these sharks and then let’s go back.’”

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Despite his many successes in the game, Bryant is constantly and furiously driven to get better, which means he also spent plenty of time this offseason working on his swing. Though that trademark uppercut was good enough to deliver a unanimous Rookie of the Year Award, it wasn’t good enough for him. When asked to grade his first year in the bigs, Bryant was a stern evaluator.

“In terms of handling everything that came my way—the struggles, the tension, the craziness—I’d give myself an A+,” he said. “I was really able to kind of tune that out and just go out there and play my game and help the team win. I was pretty proud of myself for doing that.

“Overall, maybe a B+. I’m pretty hard on myself—like, a lot. There are areas last year where I can think back on not getting the runner in from third base or making a silly error, that kind of thing. I really want to get better at that. I think I’ll always give myself a B+ or a B. It’s just who I am. I just want to continue to get better and be the best I can be and not be complacent or settle for anything less.”

For many, the second year in the big leagues can be harder than the first. Even a player as heralded as Bryant essentially arrives in The Show as a mystery, but now pitchers have detailed scouting reports on him. Plus, they have faced Bryant mano a mano, so they know how he reacts to their arsenal.

To offset this, Bryant spends a lot of time in the video room studying opposing pitchers, but he said he doesn’t immerse himself in it because watching too much video can be detrimental to him. He just wants to know what each pitcher throws and how their pitches move. After that, he trusts his swing and his ability to make real-time adjustments.

“Once I figure something out that I did wrong and I make that adjustment, I’m so determined to fix it,” Bryant said. “I think that’s really what sets me apart in terms of my mentality is just that determination and the desire to change what’s not going good for me. That’s really what’s gotten me this far, and I hope I can continue to learn how to be even quicker at making adjustments so that my game can go to different levels.”

As far as the Cubs coaching staff is concerned, Bryant is already well ahead of the curve for a player of his age and experience level. Mallee said once the second-year phenom learns to relax from at-bat to at-bat and let the game come to him, the result could be scary for opposing pitchers.

“Kris’ ability to hit and recognize pitches and command the strike zone is outstanding,” Mallee said. “As a young hitter, he gets in trouble sometimes because he tries to do it all in this at-bat instead of being patient. When he’s patient, he walks a bunch.

“He’s going to become a better hitter, and he’s learning that with the lineup we have, he doesn’t have to get that hit. The next guy behind him has a chance to get the hit. He just has to look for a good pitch to hit, [and if] he doesn’t get it, [he’ll] just take his walk and let the next [guy come] up.”

So how does a man who has gone from relative anonymity to the owner of the second-best-selling jersey in the game in just three years’ time stay grounded, avoid the sophomore slump and manage the colossal expectations on his back after his spectacular freshman campaign? Somehow, he handles it all with the same steady hand that smoothed his transition into the upper echelon of baseball and instant celebrity.

“I have no problem with those expectations, because mine are way bigger than theirs—than anybody’s out there,” Bryant said. “My expectations are the sky. I’ve always had that mentality. I think if you don’t set your expectations high, if you don’t write your goals down and make them lofty or crazy or record-breaking goals, then you shouldn’t be playing this game. That’s what I do all the time. I write my goals down, what I want to do as an individual and as a team, and I look back on them at the end of the year. There are some I don’t get, but there are some where I’m like, ‘Wow, I did that. That’s pretty good. Let’s make it even higher next year.’”

Opposing pitchers beware.

—Gary Cohen

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