If you look at his numbers, Kris Bryant looks ready for the majors. He hit 22 homers in just 68 games in Double-A before earning a promotion to Triple-A, where he hasn’t slowed down a bit, smashing eight more homers in 22 games. Between the two levels, he now owns an absurd .348/.443/.700 slash, with 30 home runs and 11 steals…in just 90 games.
If you simply look at him on a baseball field, Kris Bryant looks ready for the majors. At 6’5″, 215 pounds, the 22-year-old stands out from his peers on the diamond. He’s faster than it seems like he should be. He’s remarkably agile. Everything he does looks smooth. He’s one of those guys who would probably excel at any sport. He makes it all look easy.
I had the opportunity to see Bryant in person for the first time last weekend, and you really can’t make a more emphatic first impression than he did. The very first pitch I saw in a Bryant plate appearance was an inside fastball that caught too much of the plate, and he hit possibly the longest in-game home run I have ever seen at Bricktown Ballpark. Fortunately, MiLB.com posted video of his bomb, so you can take a look at it yourself:
That ball ended up clearing the video board above the bleachers in left with plenty to spare. Just look at that swing. He’s so calm in the box, barely even moving, before he takes a quick step with the front foot and just straight-up catapults that bat through the zone. It’s a exceptionally smooth swing, paired with good loft that produces home runs in bunches.
After that magical first pitch, however, Bryant’s day started to spiral. Over his next three at-bats, he saw almost exclusively breaking balls, either low in the zone or down in the dirt. By my count, Bryant swung at six pitches that registered below 80 mph on the gun. He whiffed on all six swings, with two of them resulting in strikeouts.
Bryant showed his youth emotionally, as well. He grew visibly frustrated as the game went on and the swinging strikes piled up, cursing at himself under his breath on his way back to the dugout, shaking his head, rolling his eyes, etc. A game that started with a jaw-dropping feat of strength ended with a swinging strikeout at a curveball in the dirt.
Between Double-A and Triple-A, Bryant’s strikeout rate sits at 27.3% this year (25.9% in Double-A, 31.9% in Triple-A). While his swing can get a bit long (he is 6’5″, after all), I think this is more of a product of his work-in-progress pitch recognition than a mechanical issue. If Triple-A pitchers — and not even especially good ones; he faced Rudy Owens and Alex White in this particular game — can exploit his inability to recognize breaking pitches, I worry that pitchers in the majors would eat him alive.
Cubs president Theo Epstein said that he doesn’t see a scenario that leads to Bryant playing in the majors this year. This has led to some hand-wringing by Cubs fans who are desperate for the team’s crop of hot prospects to save the team from monotonous mediocrity. Looking at his batting line and his 30 homers, it’s very easy to understand where they’re coming from. His strikeout rate is high, but it’s easy to willingly overlook when it’s surrounded by bloated video-game numbers.
Bryant has all the tools necessary to be an All-Star caliber third baseman for years to come, but he’s probably better off staying in the minors for now so he can iron out the wrinkles in his pitch recognition, away from the media attention and fan expectations. Bryant is one hell of an athlete, but as Cubs fans are plenty used to hearing, “Wait until next year.”
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.