College Player Of The Year: Kris Bryant

SAN DIEGO—Everyone has a favorite Kris Bryant story. Baseball America's 2013 College Player of the Year left a trail of gaping mouths and shaking heads in his wake this spring, on his way to 31 home runs—the most by a college player since 2003, and 10 more than any other player in 2013. So naturally, the most common story about San Diego's junior third baseman involves a massive display of power.

Longtime USD radio play-by-play man Jack Murray can't stop talking about the ball Bryant hit over the light tower against Saint Louis on a cool night back in March. Murray swears the ball traveled 600 feet—or more.

Bryant's father, Mike Bryant, won't argue with that estimate.

"It was 20 feet above the light tower, and it was going up," Mike Bryant said, his eyes wide and his voice rising in pitch like the flight of his son's home run. "Look—I get goose bumps talking about it. It was legendary."

Mike Bryant has plenty of favorite stories, of course. A ninth-round pick out of Massachusetts-Lowell in 1980 who played two minor league seasons in the Red Sox system, Mike introduced his sons to baseball at an early age. He still clearly remembers the day he realized Kris was special.

"We were on an elementary school playground, he was 5 years old, at his older brother's practice," Mike Bryant recalled. "At the end of the practice, the coach let the younger siblings take a couple hacks—there were like three of them. So I went up there, I was throwing some overhand tosses. The other other kids took a couple swings. The first ball I threw to Kris, he launched it into the air—it had to go 30 feet into the outfield. On a Little League field, for a 5-year-old kid. He had this huge bat, like a 31-inch bat, and he was tiny. The ball just—it jumped, it soared. One swing. I had him take a couple more—it was line drives. He just had . . . something. At 8 years old he started hitting them out over the Little League fence, 200-foot fences, and as a 9-year-old, he was hitting tons of them. Home runs, man."

At age 9, Bryant hit seven home runs at a club tournament, and his father first recognized a fire burning inside him to become great. Growing up in Las Vegas, Bryant played in several tournaments with phenom Bryce Harper. Bryant is 10 months older, but both of them were constantly playing up against older competition.

"But when he got in high school," Mike Bryant said, "he was always driven by what the older guys were doing: 'If I'm going to be successful, I've got to do what the best guys on this field are doing. I've got to seek them out, watch what they do, watch how they work, then get better than them.' "

San Diego recruiting coordinator Jay Johnson remembers the first time he ever saw Bryant.

"It was a game his sophomore year at Bonanza High School," Johnson said. "I think he hit two triples to right field, a couple walks, played unbelievable defense. And all that's great, but what really separated him was his character and makeup. It's the total package, that kind of ability with unbelievable work ethic, unbelievable intelligence. He's one of those rare guys you can give an adjustment or concept between at-bats, and he's going to go out and apply it, and hit a missile the very next time up. Those guys don't come along very often with those kind of tools and that kind of makeup."

Bryant's total package—not just his top-of-the-charts power—makes him the kind of player that San Diego coach Rich Hill said "comes along once in a coach's career." So it's fitting that Hill's favorite Bryant story wasn't some monstrous home run. It came in a game a couple of weeks before San Diego's season ended at the Los Angeles Regional.

"He made a play on a bunt that was absolutely spectacular," Hill said. "It was like (Mike) Moustakas in the big leagues, some of these guys—he just threw a laser to first base. The next inning, he went first to third, and basically ran in the center fielder's face, head-first slide into third base. Then you think to yourself, 'This guy's got 25 home runs, he just made that play, and he just went first to third like that?' I mean, that's crazy. So that really is my Kris Bryant moment. It's not the longest home run in the world, and it's not going 5-for-7 (in his final home game)—it's that spectacular play on the bunt, and going first to third. That's what separates him."

5 O’Clock Hitter?

Bryant hasn't always been such a complete, polished player, of course. While Harper was widely regarded as a can't-miss superstar since he was 15, scouts had doubts about Bryant during his high school days. He was a big name on the showcase circuit, and some scouts regarded him as a first-round talent out of high school, when he ranked as the No. 53 prospect on Baseball America's pre-draft Top 200. But BA's draft report on Bryant that year said his power "mostly shows up during batting practice or when he has a metal bat in his hands. There are a lot of moving parts to his swing and he has trouble barreling balls up with wood, so how much usable power he ends up having is a big question."

That rankled the fiery Mike Bryant.

"I used to tell him, 'When you hit BP, have your routine, use the whole field, try to resist hitting home runs in BP because they'll put that 5 o'clock hitter label on you,' " he said. "They tried to put that on him, and that kind of bothered me. I'm a candid guy, because I know my kid better than anybody.

"There was a knock on him that he didn't care because of the way he played on the field. I found that almost comical, but at some point it started to get irritating, to be honest with you. He had to fight through that himself. He just does things easy, he's smooth, and he hustles."

Bryant's strong commitment to USD caused him to slip to the Blue Jays in the 18th round of the 2010 draft, and he was an instant star for the Toreros, hitting .365/.482/.599 with nine home runs, 36 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in 21 tries.

"Coming to USD was the best decision I've made in my life," Bryant said. "I knew coming in here that the coaches would get me a whole lot better, and they have in every area of my game, every year."

He was a freshman All-American in 2011, but he was just scratching the surface of his potential.

"The maturity I've seen in him as a player, it's been leaps and bounds," Hill said. "His freshman year, he was kind of a 6-foot-5, wiry, gangly kid coming in with some holes in his swing, really had work to do on his defense. To his sophomore year, he kept getting better. To this year, he just blossomed. I mean, 31 home runs with a BBCOR bat is ridiculous The fact that he can play third base like a major leaguer now is ridiculous. The fact that he can go first to third, second to home in the blink of an eye is ridiculous. If you put him on the warning track and told him to throw this ball as hard as you can to home plate, it would be Ichiro-esque . . . And the scary thing is, he keeps getting better."

Bryant's offensive numbers have escalated steadily each season. He hit .366/.483/.671 with 14 homers and 57 RBIs as a sophomore, increasing his walk total from 33 to 39 while decreasing his strikeout total from 55 to 38. His offensive approach took a major step forward after Johnson suggested he widen his base in the batter's box.

"Being 6-5, he's a long ways from the bottom of the strike zone," Johnson said. "So our thought process was by spreading him out, it would get his eyes closer to the ball. That helped his strike-zone discipline get better, his walks went up, strikeouts went down, and he could get to the low pitch so much better, and stay in the zone and on plane. So it was a balance thing, but it was a vision thing as well. And it seemed to really help him. Also when he mishits the bottom of the ball down there like that, he can get rewarded because he's got that strength and bat speed, so he can get rewarded for that, too."

"That might have been the turning point in my career here, just widening out," Bryant said. "Earlier I drifted into a lot of balls, and I think I've tapped into a lot more of my power by using my legs more. I really see the ball a whole lot better, my head's not moving."

This spring Bryant took another leap forward, hitting .329/.493/.820 with 31 homers and 62 RBIs. Through the end of regionals, he was leading the nation in home runs, slugging, runs (80), total bases (187) and walks (66). He did an admirable job maintaining his disciplined approach even while opponents constantly pitched around him. The Toreros got creative in an effort to get him as many opportunities as possible, often using him in the leadoff or No. 2 spots in the lineup. And when he got pitches to hit, he rarely missed them.

With his long levers, Bryant used to be vulnerable against fastballs in on his hands. Now he can turn on quality fastballs and drive them out of the park, as he did against a 94 mph heater from San Francisco's Alex Balog in late May.

"I wouldn't try to challenge him in—I think he's established that," a National League crosschecker said. "If you're trying to go soft away and you miss, he'll go the other way. I saw him hit two home runs that were both (opposite-field) in two games. They were just away, away, away, and he would spit on balls. He just knew the strike zone. There was one game where the pitcher hung him a slider, like a 1-2 pitch, and I thought, 'Ooh, gosh, he should have killed that ball.' He looked back and the umpire said 'Ball.' Very next pitch he clobbered a fastball."

Any reservations scouts might once have harbored about Bryant's hitting ability have long since been obliterated. Some scouts grade his power as an 80 on the 20-80 scale, and his hit tool as a 60.

"You're looking at a guy that doesn't come down the road but once every 15 years," an American League area scout said. "He's really proved that he can really swing the bat. I've seen him turn on a good fastball, and seen him hit a good slider away. What else does he have to do? He's the complete package, and so athletic, big, strong, he can run, he can throw. I don't think I've seen him have more than two at-bats that were just average. He just seems to excel.

At Home At The Hot Corner

The only question remaining is whether Bryant will be a third baseman in the big leagues or a corner outfielder. Bryant has played some right field this year and even center, showing scouts a plus to plus-plus arm and good instincts. He's an average runner from home to first and a little better than that underway. Hill used to say that he thinks Bryant has Gold Glove right fielder written all over him, but the more Bryant improves at the hot corner, the better his chances to stay at third base look.

"I've taken huge strides at third base," Bryant said. "Coming in here, I wasn't too good, but coach Hill just hammered into me that first step, getting good at that, coming in on a ball, working on my backhands, forehands. I think I've done awesome at that area.

"That was one of my goals coming into college: get better at defense, show people I can play third base. Maybe play outfield here or there, but I really want to stick at third base. Not to take anything away from playing the outfield, but it's not as challenging as third base. My whole life I've always been up for a challenge, and I really want to stick at third base and show people I can play there."

Scouts remain divided on the question of where he'll ultimately wind up, but whoever drafts him figures to run him out as a third baseman and go from there.

"I think he can play third base," the crosschecker said. "It can speed up on him a little bit, but for the most part when you're grading his fundamentals, his footwork, his glove, his release, everything is good. It's just that it does speed up on him. He's so long and rangy that, a ball that would normally be three steps to someone else's left or right, he can just snare it. He's better after a couple long strides, really good range to his left. And his arm is good at third."

The defensive question will be answered down the road—though not very far down the road, because Bryant's bat could get him to the majors in a hurry. It is fun to contemplate Bryant's future, because as Hill put it, if he's this good now, "What's it going to be three years from now, when he really fills that uniform out, when he shaves more than once every two weeks?"

But it's also fun to contemplate what is now the past—Bryant's remarkable college career. After the Los Angeles Regional ended, Bryant and the USD seniors got to address their teammates in an emotional postgame huddle on the field. He greeted reporters with glassy eyes and halting but heartfelt words.

"Tonight was more than just a baseball game to me," Bryant said. "Just looking back on the three years that I've had at USD, I can't even put into words how special it was . . . I just had a lot of good memories here."

And he left a lot of other people with stories they will always remember.