The Natural

Kris Bryant has a season for the ages

By all accounts, St. Louis Billikens relief pitcher James Norwood has a solid collegiate baseball career ahead of him. The flame-throwing junior has allowed only one home run in 61 innings of work over two seasons, and is considered to have one of the best fastballs in the Atlantic 10 Conference. He’s also become a fan-favorite among the USD baseball faithful, and you can bet he’s none-too-pleased as to why.

On a wet, dreary and altogether miserable evening at Fowler Park last March, Norwood took the mound in the bottom of the eighth inning of an early-season matchup with the Toreros. St. Louis had built a commanding 6-2 lead, and the majority of the 340 die-hard fans in attendance had seen enough; opting to head en masse toward the exits and, presumably, warmth and shelter. With his team just six outs away from a confidence-boosting win against a nationally ranked opponent, Norwood threw a 94-mph fastball across the heart of the plate — and the greatest hitter in USD history was ready.

“I remember that the coaches told me that he had a really good fastball, and to be ready for it early in the count,” Kris Bryant recalls, futilely attempting to suppress a grin. “I wasn’t feeling great that night, and went to the plate with the intention of swinging at anything close to the strike zone. He grooved a fastball, and I got ahold of it pretty good.”

bryant1 fall 2013That may well be the understatement of the year. The mammoth home run has since become the stuff of legend, with some reports estimating its distance at over 550 feet. A host of on-site observers claim the baseball not only cleared the 80-foot tall left-field light tower, it was still on an upward trajectory as it did.

Bryant’s modesty stands in stark contrast to his flashy on-field exploits, and it takes a fair bit of prodding for the No. 2 overall selection by the Chicago Cubs in last June’s amateur baseball draft to discuss his Ruthian wallop. In fact, the 21-year-old All-American third baseman and Baseball America 2013 Player of the Year would rather call attention to the fact that the Toreros lost the game, 6-3. “It’s great to hit home runs, but it’s better to win games … ” Bryant says, but the memory of the swing is with him now, and the beaming smile quickly returns. “I don’t usually watch my home runs, but I have to admit that I watched that one.”

While tape-measure blasts may be the exception and not the rule, Bryant is clearly well versed in the art and science of the long ball — and every other aspect of hitting. As a junior, he led Division I college baseball in a number of prominent offensive categories, including: home runs (31); total bases (187); runs (80); and slugging percentage (.820). It’s also worth noting that his individual home run total was higher than 222 of the 296 teams in Division I.

“I’ve been around college baseball for close to 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it, not even close,” says USD Baseball Head Coach Rich Hill. “What makes it even more impressive is that he did it in the dead bat era. These BBCOR bats the guys are using today are not even close to the old aluminum bats in terms of power.”

Mandated for safety reasons by the NCAA, the Ball-Bat Coefficient of Restitution (BBCOR) bats were put into play to perform more like their wood counterparts, complete with a smaller sweet spot that decreases the speed of the ball as it makes contact with the bat.

Folks within the USD baseball family began to wonder just what kind of astronomical stats Bryant would’ve amassed with the old aluminum bats, and made some startling discoveries after doing some research. Torero athletics statistician Mark Kramer extrapolated the numbers, and came to the conclusion that Bryant would have hit 49 home runs had he been swinging with aluminum rather than BBCOR. That total would have been one more than Oklahoma State alum and former major-leaguer Pete Incaviglia’s all-time record of 48 over 75 games in 1985.

Kramer’s data also suggests that if Bryant’s 62-game schedule in 2013 had been increased to 75, he would’ve hit an astonishing 68 round-trippers. Heady stuff to be sure, but the only numbers Bryant seems overly concerned about are located in the win-loss column.

“It’s been an amazing year, no doubt about it,” Bryant says. “When we lost to UCLA (in the NCAA regionals), I was really disappointed, because I thought we could make a lot of noise in the postseason.

“We have such a great group of guys, and everyone plays the game like we’re just kids having fun. That’s what it’s all about to me. It’s still the same game as it was back then.”

From the time he was a 5-year-old trailing his big brother to little league practices in their hometown of Las Vegas, Bryant has made a habit of hitting baseballs harder and farther than players twice his age. Kris’ father Mike Bryant, a former minor league baseball player in the Boston Red Sox organization, fondly recalls the moment when he realized that his youngest son had skills that couldn’t be taught. “I took Kris with me to one of his brother Nick’s baseball practices at a local elementary school,” he says. “At the end of the practice, we set aside time for some of the younger kids to hit. I threw Kris a couple of overhand pitches, and it was like, BOOM! The ball was flying all over the field. Peoples’ jaws just dropped, and mine was one of them.”

A batting cage was quickly erected in the Bryant family’s backyard, and rarely a day went by when Kris couldn’t be found swinging at pitches on a tee, or getting in a little batting practice with dad when he returned from work in the evenings. The talent was undeniable, and so was Kris’ impressive work ethic. Mike remembers having to practically beg his son to take time off from hitting drills to join the family for dinner, and the sweltering desert heat seemed to only invigorate the aspiring slugger.

“It gets really warm out here (in Las Vegas), but that never slowed him down,” Mike says. “He loves the game and has an uncommon gift as a hitter, which is pretty clear to anyone who watches him swing a bat.”

Rumors of a teenage wunderkind lighting up high school pitching across Nevada filtered back to Hill and his staff, and the decision was made to head to the desert and see what all the hype was about. They weren’t disappointed. Bryant had all the tools to be a superstar, but it remained to be seen if the youngster could hold up against top-tier college pitching, and how he would adjust to life away from home.

Check and check. “Kris acclimated to our program in no time flat,” Hill says. “He really works at his craft.” He also hit the ground running in the classroom, and the finance major finished his junior year with a 3.35 grade-point average, which should come in handy given the vast amount of zeros the Cubs included in his lucrative $6.7 million contract. “I’m so excited to be where I am now, but I owe so much to my coaches and my teammates at USD,” Bryant says. “I’ll always look back on my three years there as one of the best experiences of my life.”

Bryant isn’t the only Torero with the opportunity to prove his skills at the next level. All told, eight members of the 2013 squad were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents with major league organizations. It’s an impressive total, and indicative of the level of talent USD is fielding on a yearly basis.

“I’d stack our program up against any team in the country over the last five years in terms of players drafted,” Hill says. “USD baseball is in a really good place right now, and thanks to guys like Kris, A.J. Griffin and Brian Matusz, we’re earning the reputation of a program that gets players to the big leagues.”