Updated: September 2, 2014 11:18PM
Electrifying Cubs prospect Kris Bryant earns player of year honor
Bryce Miller, USA TODAY Sports
des moines, iowa Moments after watching Kris Bryant spray baseballs around and out of Principal Park during a recent batting practice session, Manny Ramirez shakes his head.
Ramirez, the 12-time All-Star, 2004 World Series MVP and currently player-coach for the Pacific Coast League’s Iowa Cubs, has seen a sea of sluggers and thousands upon thousands of swings.
The still-blossoming Bryant, at age 22, has the potential to be the best of the bunch. “He’s unbelievable,” Ramirez says.
Bryant anchors the newest generation of big-swing, short-memory hitters in baseball. The booming bat is the reason the Chicago Cubs invested their largest signing bonus in history -- nearly $6.71 million in 2013 -- and the reason he has been selected as the 2014 USA TODAY Sports Minor League Player of the Year.
Ramirez, when asked what makes Bryant exceptional, chuckles.
“He’s 6-5, bro,” he says. “He stays inside on his swing all the time. He’s so tall that when he misses a ball, he can still hit it out. The thing I like about him, he knows how to turn the page. If he misses an at-bat, he forgets about it and moves on to the next one.
“A lot of players can’t do it, but he knows how to do it at such a young age.”
GALLERY: PAST WINNERS
On the upswing (AT)
The statistics produced by Bryant’s unique plate approach reinforce his ability to affect games and damage the ERAs of opposing pitchers.
With Iowa’s season complete, Bryant led the minor leagues with 43 homers, while recording 110 RBI and a .325 average between Classes AAA and AA.
Bryant’s father, Mike, spent two seasons in the 1980s in the Boston Red Sox organization -- soaking up hitting tips from Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams. Those discussions fueled a swing discipline Mike and Kris have worked on since the current sensation was 8.
The goal of each Bryant at-bat: Swing up and swing decisively -- and the rest will take care of itself.
“Ted Williams used to say, ‘If I hit it hard and hit it in the air, I’m going to be all right,’” the elder Bryant says. “That was his whole philosophy, that slightly upward swing while everybody else was swinging on a downward path, trying to put backspin on it to lift the ball into the air.
“Ted Williams figured out the launch angle. When you’ve got a guy who’s 50 years ahead of the curve in terms of hitting, you’re sitting there listening and you feel like you’re learning calculus or aeronautical engineering or something. It’s the science of hitting.”
Mike Bryant remembers the ball-smashing milestones: Kris hit his first homer during a practice as an 8-year-old. At age 9, he homered seven times in a seven-game tournament in St. George, Utah. As the swing gained polish, Mike Bryant preached sabermetrics -- quoting websites about the high percentage of ground-ball outs.
The training then shifted to mental resolve, specifically the ability to move on from lost moments at the plate.
“The talent gets you so far. But if you’re more mentally strong at the plate, you’re less likely to give away an at-bat or a pitch,” says Kris Bryant, a third baseman. “If you dwell on things, you can miss a pretty good pitch to hit. Over the course of the year, that can add up to quite a few at-bats.”
Potential distractions for Bryant also come in the form of expectations in Chicago, where the Cubs are mapping a future that includes Bryant, shortstop Javier Baez and outfielders Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. (For more on Baez and Soler, see Page 21.)
“Is there pressure?” Mike Bryant says when asked. “What I tell him all the time, the pressure exists on the outside. It’s a demon. If you allow that into your head, it’ll wreak havoc like a gremlin destroying your house -- your mental house.”
Bryant has mastered short-term thinking from the moment he was promoted from Class AA (Kodak) Tennessee to Iowa this season. He played 68 games with Tennessee.
His first five Class AAA hits were homers, a record for that level. Bryant struck out nine times in those initial 21 at-bats, but he maintained the confidence to stick with his plate protocol.
An example: On Aug. 14, Bryant hit a two-run, walk-off home run in the 12th inning for Iowa -- after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts before homering.
The game-ender was Bryant’s 40th minor league home run of the season as he became the second player to reach that mark in the last five seasons. The other was Las Vegas friend and Mike Bryant-trained slugger Joey Gallo, the Texas Rangers’ top prospect and runner-up in voting for this year’s USA TODAY Sports honors.
Bryant is fully aware of the edge-of-their-bleacher seats expectations in Chicago -- and is shying away from none of it.
“Oh yeah, I know,” Bryant says. “I flew into Chicago for the Cubs convention last year. It was crazy to see how people were waiting for you in the airport or waiting in the hotel lobby. They’re so loyal to their team.
“When I went out there to sign, I got to witness it first hand -- the passionate fan base, the blue shirts everywhere. It’s something every ballplayer should want to be a part of. If that day comes for me, it will be the happiest day of my life.”
If the hopes and dreams along the western shore of Lake Michigan seem sky-high, they fail to reach the level of the person stoking them.
“I can assure you my expectations are bigger than anyone else out there,” he says.
‘He can be Miguel Cabrera’ (AT)
Time away from baseball is rare for Bryant, who enjoys golf -- “I don’t hit it very straight, but I hit it pretty far” -- and has spent the last year and a half learning to navigate the guitar.
“I dabble around and type in ‘learn how to play’ for certain songs on YouTube,” he says. “I focus on country. I like Jason Aldean, and Taylor Swift is fairly easy to play.”
The activity is far from the most valuable use of Bryant’s hands, which already are valued in the millions when wrapped around a bat.
If there is one criticism about Bryant, it’s that he strikes out too much. He ended his season with the 12th-most strikeouts (162) in the minor leagues, while his friend and rising star Gallo sat fourth.
Jason McLeod, the Chicago Cubs’ senior vice president for scouting and player development, says Bryant’s strikeouts must be considered in context.
“We understand that strikeouts are going to be a part of Kris’ game,” McLeod says. “We always look at how he and all of our hitters arrive at those strikeouts. Is it the approach, swing mechanics, pitch recognition? Because his approach often has him seeing a lot of pitches and working deeper into counts, the walks and strikeouts are going to be a byproduct.
“His ability to get on base, hit for power and maintain a healthy OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) to this point in his career lessen the worry somewhat with the high strikeout rate.
“That being said, Kris understands it’s a game of adjustments and that he’ll have to continue to make those adjustments upon his eventual arrival in the major leagues.”
When asked how good his son can be, Mike Bryant pauses -- but only briefly.
“He can be Miguel Cabrera,” Bryant says of the Detroit Tigers’ Triple Crown winner who is a career .320 hitter with an average of 35 home runs based on a 162-game schedule. “Cabrera, only with more speed and a better arm. Do I sound too much like a dad?”
The elder Bryant isn’t the only one doing the name-dropping in reference to his talented son.
Ramirez, who hit 555 homers during his big-league career, says Bryant’s ability to punish baseballs reminds him of 6-5 Hall of Famer Frank Thomas and 6-6 Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who was second in the majors in RBI and was tied for second in homers as of Sunday.
“Two months ago, I saw Stanton get beat with a fastball, and he still hit it out to right field,” Ramirez says. “I remember playing Frank Thomas. Sometimes he’d get in front with one hand and still hit it out.
“(Bryant) is like that.”
The USA TODAY Sports Minor League Player of the Year was selected through voting on a pool of our finalists by USA TODAY Sports writers and editors plus readers at USATODAY.com. Each staffer’s vote counted for one point. The winner of the online poll (Kris Bryant) received two points.
The vote breakdown:
3B Kris Bryant, Cubs: 9 points
3B Joey Gallo, Rangers: 2 points
RHP Tyler Glasnow, Pirates: 0 points
1B Matt Olson, Athletics: 0 points
LHP Henry Owens, Red Sox: 0 points
Miller writes for The Des Moines Register, a Gannett property