ST. LOUIS – So the guy who led professional baseball in home runs last year has none in his first 17 games in the big leagues?
“Is he struggling? I don’t think so,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of prized rookie Kris Bryant.
Bryant, in fact, was moved up to the No. 3 spot in the Cubs order to see if it would make a difference in forcing pitchers to chance the strike zone a little more often with him. This after Bryant walked four times and singled in Monday’s loss to the Cardinals.
“That’s his whole season, what you saw [Monday],” Maddon said. “I give Kris a lot of credit for not expanding the zone, because they did not want to throw him a strike.”
Bryant didn’t get called up for his big-league debut until the ninth game of the season, but he led the team with 16 walks through Monday – a 22.2-percent rate uncommon not only for a rookie but especially for one thirsting for his first big-league homer. It bumped his .291 average up to a .458 on-base percentage.
Even on a Tuesday night in which he struck out his first two trips to the plate, the second one came on a checked-swing strike that otherwise would have taken the count full.
It’s obviously a small sample size – and speaks more to his reputation as a hitter to fear than a natural-grinder approach – but the last time he walked this often he was terrorizing college pitchers and out-homering most teams in the nation as a junior at the University of San Diego.
“My junior year I had a pretty good amount of walks, and I think it made me a better player,” Bryant said. “It kind of made me the player I am today. Just taking the same approach up there now.”
(In 773 minor-league plate appearances, Bryant walked 12.8 percent of the time.)
“If he keeps on-basing .450 I’ll be pretty happy,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “I think we’ve seen a lot of respect. [Monday] night in a 10-8 game with two outs and no one on [in the ninth] they threw him a 3-2 slider and let the tying run come to the plate rather than challenge him. I don’t think you see that very often with rookies.
“I think he’s done an unbelievable job of staying patient. It shows a lot of maturity. I’m not worried at all. … I don’t think he’s lost his power.”
Bryant, who’s the first Cub since Anthony Rizzo in April last season to walk four times in a game, takes pride in that.
“A lot of our job is to get on base and give your team a chance to score a run. I trust anyone hitting in front of me or behind me,” he said. “There’s more to the game than just hitting home runs, especially nowadays with a lot being said about getting on base and on-base percentage. If I’m on base I’m giving my team a chance.”
Batting behind Rizzo (which isn’t new) and ahead of Soler on Tuesday, Bryant singled home a run in the fifth in five at-bats as the Cubs lost 7-4 to the Cardinals.
“Listen, he’s done everything well,” Maddon said. “He’s going to hit his homers. He’s going to hit for a good average. By the end of the season, you’re going to see how good this kid actually is.”