- In two major league seasons Kris Bryant has won a Rookie of the Year and an MVP award and helped Chicago win its first World Series in 108 years. Now he talks to SI about his favorite memories and biggest hits from 2016 and what he has in mind for 2017 and beyond.
This week’s edition of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED includes a feature story on the charmed life and career of Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, a willing role model. Though preferably reticent, Bryant opened up on a variety of subjects beyond what is captured in the magazine.
Here are some of those topics, including how he makes batting practice harder than games, becoming a team leader, the dream day at Pebble Beach he almost missed, whether that Red Bull video with Greg Maddux was legit, the stories behind his greatest postseason hits (including a tip-pitching story about Clayton Kershaw), and why he wants to be the next Derek Jeter. In his own words, here is Bryant on Bryant.
Cubs president Theo Epstein knew he was taking University of San Diego slugger Kris Bryant with the second overall pick of the 2013 draft (as long as Houston didn’t pick him at No. 1) after he interviewed Bryant in Stockton, Calif., during that year's West Coast Conference tournament. Here is what Bryant remembers of that meeting with the man who had helped build two World Series championship teams in Boston and was now trying to do the same in Chicago:
“It was weird for me because I grew up a Red Sox fan. I’m sitting in the lobby of a hotel in my college tournament and he’s across from me asking me about my future and potentially being their pick, and I was blown away.
“I don’t remember much about meeting a lot of scouts and professional baseball people, but that was the one that stuck out to me.”
Before the 2015 season, Bryant purchased a $3,300 pitching machine and cranked it to elite velocity. He led the majors in spring training home runs that year and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. After that season he set the machine to throw 90 mph sliders just off the lower outside edge of the plate, and he would track 50 in a row several days a week—essentially learning the exact flight pattern of the pitch designed to get him to chase. He improved his batting average on sliders in 2016 by 46 points. Here’s why he values the machine:
“It’s big for me to do that off the pitching machine because I feel the pitching machine is harder than an actual game, because of the perceived velocity. I don’t feel like the ball slows down as much out of the pitching machine. So if it’s 90 it feels like 90 the whole way, whereas when guys are throwing it they may release it at 90 but when it’s at the plate it’s like 82 or something.
“It felt harder, so I noticed that the first time I had gotten the machine I went into spring training—I think it was two years ago—I hit all the those home runs and I felt really good because I was making it really hard on myself in the off-season. And I was getting mad at myself sometimes because it’s hard to just rake off the machine. I texted [Anthony] Rizzo in the offseason because he has a machine, too. I was just making sure he’s getting just as dominated off the machine as I am.
“I make sure it’s tough on me. I know it’s not the best for your confidence in the off-season. Everybody wants to just hit cage bombs and feel good about themselves. I feel like it’s necessary for me to go through that struggle, just to make sure it’s easier when I get here.”
Bryant made his major league debut on April 15 against the Padres at Wrigley Field, going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. He left the park that day smiling. Here’s why:
“I would be foolish if I let a bad first game in the big leagues bring me down because that day I could say I was a big leaguer. And not many people get a chance to say that. So I went into the game not caring how I did individually. I just wanted to take it in and soak it all up.
“It’s tough to expect a whole lot your first game. There’s a lot going on. First game in anything—first game in spring training, Opening Day . . . it just feels weird to me, and I don’t know why. It’s a different scenario. The grass looks different, you feel different, you have your uniform on. It’s just a different feeling, and I did feel it that day.
“My mom was great about it. She said, ‘Just go out there and enjoy it. You know you belong. Your dream came true today. And there’s no one who can take that away from you.’”
On whether he will became a team leader:
“I feel like right now I don’t have to do that that much because there are a lot of older guys who do that, and rightfully so. I feel like you have to kind of earn that. I’ve only played two years. I don’t know if I’ve earned that yet. I figure sometime later on in my career I can be that more outspoken guy.
“I want to lead by example and how I go about my business and if I can wake up at 5:30 and show up here at six and work out with Rizz, and maybe a minor leaguer I was a couple of years ago sees that maybe it makes them that much more willing to work and be better and it helps everybody out. That’s how I look at it.”
On whether the players should agree to tougher penalties on PED users:
“Maybe a stricter penalty. What is the first one, 80 games? If you look at it that way and guys are making $20 million, they’re losing half, which is a significant amount. [But] sometimes it’s like a slap on the wrist, I feel like. The biggest thing you get from it is the aftermath of it, and what people think of you. I think that’s where all that [penalty] comes from, which you can’t change.
“It’s a lot bigger to me [than 80 games]. You don’t get that back. It doesn’t go away. It’s tough. Reputation is everything. If you have a good one you have good one.
“I get paranoid [with supplements]. Like in the off-season I make sure I get all my stuff from the Cubs, so that if anything happens it’s like, ‘They gave it to me.’ And then even like with face wash. I take a picture and send it to [the strength and conditioning coach] and ask, ‘Can I take this?’ I get so scared. I don’t want to risk it. I think it’s a natural feeling because you get tested so often.”
In a recent Red Bull video, Bryant got punked by Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, who in disguise acted as an audio technician who is pressed into duty as a batting practice pitcher. Bryant swore he didn’t know it was Maddux, but he did note that this unknown pitcher was tipping his curveball:
“He was pissing me off. ‘Man, what is this sound guy doing? I am so over this guy.’ He told me ‘Hit it on the barrel.’
“He was busting out curves. He was showing them out of his hand. I said to myself, ‘I’m not swinging at this. Because if I swing and miss at this or if I hook it foul or something, I’m going to look so stupid. This guy pitched to his Little League team! I’m not swinging at it. I’m not in midseason form.’”
On one of his favorite memories from last season:
“This is where I’m getting out of my shell a little bit. During the year on my off days I don’t do anything. But I played Pebble [Beach]. [Jon] Lester and Rizz invited me. Lester is so cool. He’s so generous. I was like, ‘I can’t, man. I’m tired.’ It was August. We were in Oakland. We had an off day there.
“I ended up saying, ‘You know what? It’s Pebble Beach. I’m going to go.’ I ended up having an awesome time. He put us up in the Pebble Beach lodge. He flew us on a plane. It’s like we landed in Oakland, walked across the runway, got on another plane, flew for what, eight minutes to Monterey—we got up to like 6,000 feet and came right back down—stayed at the lodge, we all hung out, and then played Pebble in the morning, like eight of us, went out to dinner, and then flew back the next day.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I can do that.’ That was one of the days I remember last year. The memories . . . it’s not even playing baseball. It’s hanging with the boys.”
On a favorite postseason memory, which happened in NLCS Game 3 against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
“Something really sticks out to me. [Cubs shortstop Addison Russell] is so young and naive it makes him so good. We’re in a pitching change. A righty [Jake Arrieta] was in the game. Joe [Maddon] pulls him out to bring in a lefty. We’re standing behind the mound talking. I think Travis Wood was warming up and Addy goes, ‘Why can’t you just bring Jake back in the game after Travis gets this guy out?’—because there’s a righty up next. Me and Rizz just look at each other. ‘Does he not know the rules of baseball that he’s out of the game? He can’t come back in the game.’
“I don’t know—he could be playing us—but that’s what makes him so great. It’s that he doesn’t care. He does what he does well, and he’s just naive, and that’s what all of us were. We didn’t care about 108 years, 71 years since the World Series, that kind of thing, even though it was in our face. It was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. That’s an interesting stat.’”
On how much information he wants as a hitter:
“That’s a tough one for me to explain. I want the stuff that’s not really numerical or statistical. I’d rather know how his pitches break or where he throws them and not necessarily what he throws on certain counts. That gets me a little more anxious. Like, ‘Okay, it’s 1-1. He throws a curveball here 73% of the time.’ And I’m up there thinking, He’s going to throw a curveball here. But what if he doesn’t? Then I take myself out of the whole at-bat.
“It just messes with me. I try to pick the good stuff that helps me.”
Nobody had more big hits for the Cubs in their World Series run than Bryant, who is such a focused hitter he remembers every at-bat in fine detail. Here are the stories behind Bryant’s greatest hits of the 2016 postseason:
NLDS Game 3 vs. the Giants: Game-tying two-run homer in the ninth off a 1-1 slider from Sergio Romo:
“That was probably the biggest home run in my career up to that point—and then the ones later. His pitch is the slider, and he’s going to throw it at some point. He’s going to get you to try to chase it. But if you can bring him back in the zone, you know you’re going to get one you can hit.”
NLDS Game 4: Down three runs in the ninth, Bryant started a series-clinching four-run rally with a single off a 2-1 pitch from Derek Law:
“At that time I didn’t feel like that single would mean anything, down by three.”
NLCS Game 6 vs. the Dodgers: Bryant gave the Cubs the lead in their pennant-clinching win with an RBI single off a 1-2 sidearm fastball from Kershaw in the first inning.
“If you look at Kershaw, for example, his whole goal is to get 0-1 and then bounce the curveball or back-foot the slider. It’s that whole cat and mouse game. If the pitcher knows you’re aggressive early in the zone and he’s a good pitcher like Kershaw maybe he’s not going to try to go 0-1. But it’s always in the back of your mind. Those numbers I use all the time: batting averages when it’s 1-0, 2-0 are so much bigger than when it’s 0-1, 1-1 or 1-2.
“Kershaw had thrown like or six or seven [sidearm fastballs previously]. Obviously I knew it was a fastball because he’s straight over the top with curveball, slider, fastball. I don’t know why he was tinkering with that.
“When you can pick those up—any tip on a pitcher—it makes it that much easier, especially with two strikes. When he drops down like that, you know it’s not going to be a nasty slider or curveball in the dirt. I’m curious to see if he starts throwing a sidearm slider. He’s such a smart pitcher.”
World Series Game 5 vs. the Indians: Facing elimination, the Cubs were down 1-0 in the fourth inning when Bryant hit a 1-1 fastball from Trevor Bauer for a home run. Chicago never trailed again in the World Series.
“As you establish the history with pitchers you can kind of see [patterns], like in this last World Series. They were starting me off with first-pitch curveballs a lot. You think about Trevor Bauer. I don’t know how many at-bats I faced him, but it seemed like four of those at-bats he started me off with a curveball. I think it was Game 2, I figured it out pretty quick. I was sitting on curveball first pitch [in the third inning] and hit it pretty hard. I lined out to shortstop. That type of stuff I look at in terms of those kinds of patterns.
“[The 1-1 pitch in Game 5 was a] heater in. I know this whole last year people wanted to beat me in—fastballs in, sinkers in. I like it in. I feel great about hitting those.
It goes back to the whole season. What’s funny is our Triple A coach, Marty Pevey, had this saying that stuck with me: ‘You can’t catch the express if you’re looking for the local.’ You’ve got to be able to hit the fastball. He’s one of my favorite coaches I ever played for. He’s from Georgia, and he had all these crazy sayings.”
World Series Game 6: With Cleveland hosting a possible clincher, pitcher Josh Tomlin was one strike away from a 1-2-3 first inning when Bryant slammed an 0-and-2 curveball for a home run.
“Oh, man. I remember standing in the box. It was the loudest I’ve heard in a game. I was down 0-2. I was so focused in that at-bat. I think he started with a cutter away for a strike and then a curveball for a strike away. We faced him earlier in the series so I knew what he had.
“I knew the Indians thought I couldn’t hit a curveball, or maybe my numbers last year weren’t good on curveballs, but in my mind I’ve known I could always crush a curveball. It just goes right into my bat. For me, I want the curveball I can hit. ‘If he brings it middle in I can hit this pitch.’ It was right there, middle in. Even the catcher was going down to pick it. It was a pretty good curveball, in terms of depth.
“I love curveballs—strike curveballs. The Indians . . . that’s where I struggled in that series: chasing curveballs, especially with [Corey] Kluber. His curveball is like Bugs Bunny’s.”
World Series Game 7: With a runner at first and no outs in the 10th inning, Bryant moved the tie-breaking run into scoring position with a deep flyball on a 2-2 cutter from Bryan Shaw.
“I missed it. I think with him in general he’s throwing heavy cutters, and I think we go back to keeping your bat in the zone. You almost want to pull the ball. I think if I got it a little more out in front it would have gone a lot farther. Those types of pitchers—he has a slider and stuff but he wants to throw his cutter—you better have a plan when you’re going up there, especially in Game 7.”
On what’s next for him:
“I get told so much, ‘You’ve had such a good career in your first two years, what are you going to do?’ To me all the individual awards are all just trophies sitting on the shelf at home. Cool memories, but that’s not what keeps me going. I just want to continue to improve. And just because I had the season I had last year I just see so much more improvement.
“That’s what drives me, and obviously all that leads to success as a team, and going through a World Series and how fun it was. And we’re asked about complacency and what are you going to do to overcome that. It’s pretty easy. All you have to do is think back [a few] months and think about how much fun that was, and who wouldn’t want to do that two, three, four, five times more like the Derek Jeters of the world. So that’s what drives me. I want to be a winner.
“I never won much in my life up to this point as a team—high school and college—so to finally be on the top of the mountain, that just continues to drive me more.”