Kris Bryant remembers the way he heard people talk about him in high school, when he made the game look so easy hitting all those home runs on the dusty fields of Las Vegas that they often wondered aloud how much effort he was really putting into the game.
“At times I kind of got labeled like I really didn’t care about playing just because I was so relaxed up there,” the Cubs’ freshman phenom said. “That couldn’t be any further from the truth.”
The truth is the detractors drove him – to heights that carried him from the college player of the year in 2013, Baseball America minor league player of the year in 2014 and, on Monday night, the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner.
“There’s certain things that happen to you in your life that define you as a player,” he said, recalling the “chip on my shoulder” he carried from those high school rivals.
This time around, Bryant didn’t need to look hard for the chip when the Cubs left him in the minors despite the best spring training by a player in at least a decade – a two-week exile that suppressed his service time and assured the Cubs an additional year of club control.
Seven months later, Bryant swept all 30 first-place votes in the rookie balloting to become the 20th unanimous Rookie of the Year selection from either league – and first such Cub. San Francisco third baseman Matt Duffy finished a distant second.
“It’s awesome. … Truly an honor,” said Bryant, the third baseman who debuted as the Cubs’ cleanup hitter on April 17 and finished as the No. 3 batter in a playoff lineup that carried the Cubs to 97 regular-season wins and a playoff ride to the National League Championship Series.
Talk about a chip.
“I think things happen for a reason,” Bryant said when asked about being left in the minors those first two weeks – while his shoe company bought a billboard outside Wrigley Field with his image and the words “Worth the wait.”
“I played with a little chip on my shoulder this year. And I think it’s good to play that way sometimes. You really want to help your team win in any way possible and sometimes when you have something to play for, you play even better.
“Things turned out great,” he said. “We won; we surprised a lot of people. Moving on from this season, I think the future’s so bright for this team.”
His emergence as a core part of that big-league future just two years after he was drafted No. 2 overall is a big reason for expectations next year that already include some odds-makers making the Cubs World Series favorites – before one player has been added in the off-season.
Bryant, the Cubs’ sixth Rookie of the Year, hit .275 with franchise rookie records of 26 homers and 99 RBIs, and he had an All-Star appearance and .858 OPS despite a league-leading 199 strikeouts.
Most impressive was his eight-week finishing kick in the first six-month season of his life — hitting .326 with 12 homers, 39 RBIs, a .398 on-base percentage and .970 OPS in 57 games after Aug. 1.
“I don’t necessarily think it was anything that really clicked for me,” said Bryant, who worked with hitting coach John Mallee on a drill for keeping his bat in the strike zone longer and cutting down on swings and misses in the zone.
“But it certainly turned around those last two months. I’ve always been a pretty confident player playing the game, but when you come off of a bad month and have two really good months, it definitely helps out.”
Bryant didn’t even have time to celebrate his award Monday before somebody asked him what he expected for an encore in 2016.
“There’s always ways to improve,” said Bryant, sounding for a moment like he was searching for the means, if not the plan.
Obviously, he plans to cut down on the strikeouts, if only through experience, and he plans to keep working on refining his skills at third – maybe even shag a few more flies for those days the manager sends him into the outfield.
He even talked about eating better.
Especially if it means a bigger bite of October.
“There is a way to top this year,” Bryant said, “and that’s to win a World Series.”