When Theo Epstein was hired as president of baseball operations by the Chicago Cubs two years ago, he brought along a promise of building a sound foundation that would lead to sustained success by sticking to their plan even when the results aren’t always what they’d hope. The point of committing to a thought-out process isn’t to eliminate failure altogether -- that is an impossibility. The point is to minimize failure. For every Travis Wood, there will be an Ian Stewart. Perfection isn’t realistic in any aspect of baseball.
It's a philosophy that holds true on an individual level as well, and at just 21 years of age, Kris Bryant seems to have already figured that out.
“I think the biggest thing is staying with a process that works for you,” Bryant said. “Staying in the moment and not focusing on your last at-bat or even the last pitch or next pitch, just the pitch that’s coming at you right now. If I put myself in that position then it puts me in best position to succeed.”
Bryant understands that he can’t control his previous failures and fixating on them will likely only lead to more poor results. His focus is always on the here and now.
“This game is crazy, it’s just built on failure,” Bryant astutely points out. “If you’re always in your head, looking at the scoreboard, looking at your batting average, it’s just a distraction that you don’t need as a baseball player. It takes away from you succeeding on the field. That’s just something that going to college really helped me in that area.”
Bryant, who the Cubs selected second overall in last June’s amateur draft, says he believes that the biggest separator for making it to the big leagues is having the mental side of the game in check. While at University of San Diego, Bryant said the team brought in a sports psychologist multiple times a year who would talk to the players one on one and help them focus on their process while playing baseball.
“I really bought into it because you start playing in stadiums with scouts and general managers watching and your batting average is on the board and there’s just so much stuff going on that if you’re not going up there with your thoughts right, you’re really defeating yourself,” Bryant said. “I wanted to put myself in the best position to succeed and having a strong mental side in the box has really helped me.”
Despite having only played 36 games in the minor leagues, Bryant, who is currently starring in the Arizona Fall League, is being touted as one of the top prospects in all of baseball and someone who could possibly hit Wrigley Field sometime next summer. However, Bryant’s ability to focus on the present has allowed him to not worry about when he may get the call to the big leagues.
“I don't really think of that too much,” Bryant said prior to an AFL game. “Right now I'm here, so I just try and stay in the moment, focus on what I'm doing here. If that time comes, it's not in my hands, so I just go out there and play hard every day. If I'm focusing on getting better and helping my team win, then I think that all that other stuff will take care of itself.”
As far as getting better, Bryant says he’s looking to improve in every aspect of his game while playing for the Mesa Solar Sox this fall. He also hopes to continue to fill out his 6-foot-4, 215 pound frame during the offseason. However, when it comes to specifics, Bryant does have one particular goal in mind.
“Refining my approach at the plate,” Bryant said. “I know that these guys throw a tick harder than in college and have sharper breaking stuff. So just seeing those pitches and learning how to not get myself out. Go up to the plate with a plan every time. I think if I do that, I’m in a good spot.”
Looking at the numbers, Bryant’s performance at the plate thus far doesn’t appear to need much refining. Through three levels in the minors, Bryant posted a .336/.390/.688 line and his bat has continued to sizzle in the AFL, where he tops most offensive categories while delivering a 1.192 OPS.
If one were to nitpick, Bryant’s 35 strikeouts and only 11 walks in his 36 minor league games could possibly raise some concerns for the future. However, that didn’t seem to be an issue for Bryant in college as his walk total jumped from 33 his freshman year to 66 (in just nine more games) his junior year and he had more walks than strikeouts in his final two seasons. Bryant pointed out that he was seeing a lot more strikes in his first taste of pro ball so he wasn’t going to the plate with a walk in mind.
“You do more damage when you’re driving the ball all over the field and driving guys in,” Bryant said. “That was my approach. I was seeing it really well and doing well and I just went up there really confident that I was going to hit the ball hard somewhere.”
Bryant acknowledged that as he continues to climb through the system he’ll see better pitching, but he expects to progress in pro ball similarly to how he did in college.
“Your first year you might not get as many walks or hit for the power that you want, but I think over the years I’ll develop an eye and figure out how they’re trying to get me out and how their pitches move,” Bryant said. “It’ll all come naturally once you’re playing a little bit longer against this type of competition.“
Mechanically, Bryant is very quiet at the plate, with very little movement as the pitch is being delivered and a controlled swing through the zone that generates immense power. Bryant knows that fellow Cubs top prospect Javier Baez can get away with his wild movements due to his elite bat speed, but Bryant’s noiseless approach works for him.
“I just feel like when you have a lot of movement in your swing, your head’s moving, you start to think about your leg kick, getting your timing down, your load, your bat wiggle,” Bryant said. “If you go up there and you stay quiet and you’re not moving too much I think you have a better chance of seeing the ball and hitting it hard.”
Bryant has always had that quiet approach, but he said his wide stance is something he developed more recently. Up until his sophomore year of college, Bryant actually stood straight up at the plate. He said he widened out his base to keep his head still and since he’s a taller guy it helps make the low strike a little easier to hit.
The change clearly worked out for Bryant as the numbers he put up during his junior year, when he slugged .820 and led the NCAA with 31 home runs, speak volumes. When it comes to stats, Bryant may not focus on them, but he does approve of the fact that the baseball world appears to be evolving past looking at just the traditional Triple Crown numbers.
“You’re watching TV and you’re listening to a game and they’re more likely to mention (on-base percentage and slugging) than average, home runs and RBIs and I think that’s good,” Bryant said. “There’s way more to it than just those stats.”
But, of course, he never goes up to the plate worrying about his numbers.
“I think it’s funny the way baseball works, you’re told not to look at your stats, but you’re defined by them,” Bryant said. “I just really try to be on the side of not focusing on the numbers because it just messes with your head. You’re sitting there in the box and you’re thinking, ‘If I get a hit here, my average is going to be this.’ You’re not focusing on what the pitcher’s throwing you, how he’s going to get you out and all that stuff. I try to just go up there with a clear mind every time, not worried about the past, the future, my batting average, how many home runs I hit, because you can’t control that stuff. You can only go up there with a clear mind and control the fact that you want a good pitch to hit, put a good swing on it and hit it hard, that’s the only thing you can control.”
Results are never guaranteed. Knowing that may just be Bryant’s key to success.