Nov. 13, 2016
Freshman Friday: Kris Bryant
The 2013 Major League Baseball Draft had 1,216 players selected by 26 teams, 39 of which came in the first round. Even though many of these prospects still have time to develop their young careers, only one of them has made it to the All-Star Game. It was the man selected with the number two pick in the draft, one spot behind Stanford pitcher Mark Appel (who was drafted by the Houston Astros and was traded to Philadelphia in 2015). Even as the number two pick, most scouts agreed he was the safest choice in the draft: a 6'5, 230-pound behemoth of a third baseman, one who would go onto become one of baseball's best young players, if not best overall. He had great success in college, being named All-America multiple times and setting a single-season record for home runs (31), while winning the 2013 Golden Spikes and Dick Howser Awards. He would also become a staple of his city's baseball infamous lore, though his story (unlike many before him) has a happy ending.
The pick? Kris Bryant, third baseman for the Chicago Cubs.
In just two short years since promoting him to the big leagues (controversially), the Cubs have reaped the benefits of their new face of the franchise, a popular player that in a few short years, could become the face of the sport. Bryant took baseball by storm even before he stepped into the major leagues. 2014 was the year where people began to take notice of Bryant, then with the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs' Double-A affiliate. In 68 Double-A games, Bryant batted .355 with 22 home runs and 58 RBIs, before he was promoted to the Triple-A Iowa Cubs and destroyed minor league pitching. He hit 21 homers and batted 52 runs in, totaling for 43 home runs and 110 RBIs while also posting a .325 batting average. The baseball world could not wait another minute to get Bryant into the big leagues.
That is, everyone except the Cubs. Even when Bryant was invited to Chicago's spring training the following March (where he hit .425 with 9 homers, more than any other player on the roster), the Cubs' front office decided to send Bryant back to Iowa, sparking backlash from the baseball world. A number of media outlets were suspecting the Cubs of purposely keeping Bryant in the minors due to a clause which meant if Bryant were to spend the first twelve days of the season in Triple-A, he would then be called up by the Cubs, who would be able to keep Bryant an extra year before he would become a free agent. It was a move by the Cubs that was described by Major League Baseball's Players Association as "a bad day for baseball."
Nevertheless, Bryant spent his nearly two-week term with Iowa (he hit 3 home runs and batted .321 in seven Triple-A games) before he was finally called up to Chicago on April 25, 2015. Though he started slow (going 0-4 with three strikeouts in his major league debut), Bryant quickly found his footing. After a homerless April (where he still batted .318), Bryant hit his first career home run on May 9 off Kyle Lohse of the Brewers. He was voted National League Rookie of the Month for May, batting .265 with seven homers, 22 runs batted in, and 16 walks. In July, Bryant was selected to the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati as an injury replacement for Giancarlo Stanton, and he was picked to compete in the Home Run Derby (he lost in the first round to Albert Pujols, 10-9). On July 27, he hit his first walk-off home run, a two-run shot to beat the Colorado Rockies 9-8, and on September 6,Bryant hit the longest home run in all of 2015 at 495 feet.
Bryant's dream rookie season also paralleled with what became a breakout year for the Cubs. In their first year under new manager Joe Maddon, the Cubs youthful roster, which had been subject to multiple losing seasons since 2010, became one of the most powerful teams in all of baseball. Veterans like Jason Hammel and Dexter Fowler experienced bounce-back years, and the younger players (Bryant, Jorge Soler, Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Jake Arrieta) played like experienced vets, with Arietta shining the brightest in a Cy Young-winning season. The team was running like a well-oiled machine, even with its prized free agent pickup Jon Lester (who has more than rebounded in 2016) in a year-long struggle (11-12 in '15). Bryant, for the record, finished the year with stats that only an experienced veteran should have been posting: .275 average, 26 home runs, 99 RBIs (a Cubs rookie record and the most by a rookie since Pujols hit 130 in 2001), and 31 doubles, a Cubs rookie record. Bryant ended up winning the Rookie of the Year Awards from the Sporting News and Baseball America, and he became the 20th unanimously voted winner of the Jackie Robinson NL Rookie of the Year Award. At one point, some actually believed the National League's Most Valuable Player Award could go to Bryant (it went to Bryce Harper)
The Cubs won 97 games, but only finished third in the NL Central, behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals. They did manage to clinch a wild card berth, meaning they had to play the Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh. In a game that many did not think they would win, Chicago stunned the Pirates, 4-0, with Arrieta pitching a shutout. Bryant went hitless in the game, but the Cubs advanced to their first NLDS since 2003. By this time, everyone outside the North Side of Chicago was still writing the Cubs off, referencing past painful Cubs memories (Ron Santo and the black cat, Leon "Bull" Durham, Steve Bartman, etc.). However, the Cubs proved they belonged when they stunned St. Louis, the only 100-win team in 2015, in four games, sending Chicago into a frenzy as the Cubs made it to the NLCS. Bryant helped the cause by homering in Game 3.
The celebrating was short-lived, however, as the Cubs were swept in four somewhat uncompetitive games by the New York Mets, quickly killing the postseason buzz in Chicago. Bryant only went 3-14 in the series, striking out five times against Met pitching. Strikeouts were actually a common occurrence for Bryant, despite his outstanding batting. In 2015, Bryant struck out 199 times, more than any other rookie in a single season. He finished second in strikeouts behind Baltimore's Chris Davis. In 2016, however, Bryant would improve. The whole team would improve, as well.
2016 was quite possibly the most bizarre year on record. A billionaire reality television star became our next President of the United States. The city of Cleveland won its first major sports championship in over five decades. Roves of people expressed complete disgust for a movie about women hunting ghosts and a first-person shooter video game about war in futuristic space. A deceased gorilla from the Cincinnati Zoo became a god to all that honored his memory. The 2016 season's end result for the Chicago Cubs may be up there as well. Though championship buzz died in Chicago after Game 4 of the NLCS, hopes in the North Side were actually high for once, with many Cub fans actually believing that this year was "the year" for the Cubbies to end 108 years of misery. With many of its young stars (including Bryant) returning, along with offseason pickups Jason Heyward, John Lackey, and Ben Zobrist, the Cubs were ready to dominate baseball. They dominated.
Though the whole team worked well over the course of the season, team MVP would probably have gone to Bryant. Bryant proved 2015 was no "flash in the pan", improving his numbers to 39 home runs, 102 RBIs, increasing his batting average to .292, and reducing his strikeout total to 154, not even cracking baseball's top ten. Bryant made the All-Star team again, this time as the National League's starting third baseman, and hit a first-inning home run off fellow Chicago baseballer Chris Sale in a 4-2 loss. This was just a glimpse in Bryant's MVP-worthy season; he also went 5-5 against the Reds on June 27, ripping three homers and two doubles, becoming the first player in the modern era to do so.
Chicago established itself as the winningest franchise in baseball, going 103-59 (the best regular season record since the 2009 World Series-winning Yankees). They won the NL Central by 17 1/2 games and headlined the baseball world almost every summer and fall night. Once the postseason started, Bryant and the Cubs did not stop. Bryant recorded at least one hit in all four games of the NLDS, helping the Cubs past the San Francisco Giants. Bryant's shining moment came in Game 4, when the Cubs trailed 5-2 in the 9th inning and looked to be heading back to Wrigley for Game 5. Instead, Bryant sparked a four run rally by singling and scoring on a Ben Zobrist double. In the NLCS, Chicago had to deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers and their ace, Clayton Kershaw. Bryant produced in the series (6 hits with 3 doubles), but his teammates stepped up big. Addison Russell and Anthony Rizzo each hit two home runs in the series, and Kyle Hendricks nearly pitched a complete game shutout in Game 6, helping the Cubs to their first World Series appearance since 1945.
It is here that the World Series became must-see TV, with the Cubs (the most miserable team in baseball) taking on a team that also knew what championship droughts felt like: the Cleveland Indians. After the Cavaliers took the NBA title in June, Cleveland ran the wave and won the AL Central, blazed through the Red Sox and Blue Jays with ease, and made their first Series since 1997, looking for their third title and first since 1948. Whoever won the series would break their respective losing streak, and the sports world was greatly intrigued.
It was a Series that included four games that Kris Bryant and the Cubs would most likely care to forget. Chicago found itself down three games to one against the Indians after being blown out 7-2 in Wrigley in Game 4. Bryant was nowhere to be found in the lineup, going 1 for his first 14 at-bats. He struck out five times, and neither he nor his teammates seemed to have an answer for the Indians' pitching, especially American League Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber and midseason pickup Andrew Miller, whose slider looked mystical throughout the playoffs. Chicago's last stand began in Game 5, and after an early Jose Ramirez home run, it didn't look good.
That is, before Kris Bryant stepped to the plate in the fourth inning and roped a line drive home run off Trevor Bauer to tie the game. Bryant's teammate and fellow All-Star Anthony Rizzo stepped up and ripped the next pitch to right field for a double, beginning a three-run rally for the Cubs that led to a 5-1 victory to send the series back to Cleveland.
With an electric Cleveland crowd going into Game 6, forcing a Game 7 was not going to be easy. Cleveland starter Josh Tomlin (who shut out the Cubs in Game 1) took the ball for the Tribe and easily retired his first two batters in the sixth game. Bryant, however, rode his Game 5 breakout into Cleveland and smashed a hanging breaking ball into the bleachers for a first-inning home run, deflating the home crowd and beginning a 9-3 rout, highlighted by Jorge Soler's game-breaking grand slam in the third inning. There would be a Game 7...
...and what a Game 7 it would be. In an epic matchup of fellow Cy Young candidates, Kluber and Hendricks squared off in a pitching duel, with Hendricks (one earned run in 4.2 innings) outmatching Kluber (five runs in four innings). At one point, Bryant (who went 1 for 4 with a hit and a walk) and the Cubs were winning 6-3, although die-hard Cubs fans knew from experience that the game was far from over. This proved to be true once the Indians tied the game with three runs in the eighth inning, capped off by Rajai Davis' surprising home run off Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, a man who can throw a 100-plus mile per hour fastball consistently. As Game 7 went into extras, the 2016 World Series started to become one of the greatest World Series (with one of the greatest Game 7's) ever. After a rain delay, the Cubs scored in the tenth when Albert Almora Jr. (who Bryant advanced on a sacrifice fly that nearly went over the wall) scored on an opposite-field single by Zobrist. After Chicago added another run, Cleveland nearly came back in the bottom of the inning when Davis singled to score Brandon Guyer, cutting the lead to 8-7. However, Maddon called in reliever Mike Montgomery to retire Michael Martinez on a soft ground ball, and on the last play of the game, Bryant cleanly fielded the ball, fired the ball to Rizzo at first, and promptly slipped on the wet infield grass. DIdn't matter. Bryant got up to celebrate with his teammates in ending a 108-year championship drought, finally bringing the North Side a World Series title.
After two seasons of great individual and team success, Bryant seems to be in a great position to become one of the best players in baseball, as well as one of the most impactful. Bryant is leading an era, also highlighted by players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor, and Mookie Betts, that are representing baseball's elite, even before they reach they age of 30, or even 25. With easy amounts of power to both sides of the field and a glove that ranks among the best, Bryant is now known as one of the best all-around players in baseball. In fact, because this writing is being published before Major League Baseball's announcement of the 2016 National League Most Valuable Player, I am saying I will not be surprised if Bryant is announced as the MVP on November 17. There were those who thought he could win in his rookie year, and his numbers improved in his second season. He is officially one of the finalists, alongside Washington's Daniel Murphy and Los Angeles' Corey Seager.
There is more to Bryant, however, than just baseball. Bryant has now officially become a well-known athlete outside the world of sports. After their World Series win, many Cubs players have been hitting the national networks (Cubs players were seen singing with lifelong Cubs fan Bill Murray and dancing for a dead grandma's bachelorette party on Saturday Night Live). Bryant was not one of the strippers or singers on SNL, but he has made appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Ellen, and he has a sponsorship with Express, the fashion retailer. Bryant holds somewhat of a boyish charm (it pays to be highly successful while you're still young and good looking), and it, plus his athletic build, has caught the attention of the female demographic, as shown by the following tweet:
Kris Bryant appreciation post pic.twitter.com/968IfvVYOz— Tweet Like A Girl (@TweetLikeAGirI) November 3, 2016
It really is fascinating, and somewhat refreshing, to see this 24 year-old from Las Vegas turn into a baseball sensation for one of the sport's most historic franchises. Now that he's got a prime career ahead of him and a World Series title on his resume boast, Kris Bryant's only going up. And he's already on top of the world.
Which young athlete do YOU think I should do for Freshman Friday? Comment below or hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.
Follow Kris Bryant on Twitter: @KrisBryant_23