SURPRISE, Ariz. — It’s been a while since Kris Bryant cried about being called out on strikes. Let’s call it a little more than half a lifetime ago, in his native Las Vegas.
It happened more than a time or two back then, though, and not without a pretty good recurring explanation.
Bryant wasn’t just a precociously talented young player; he was a student of the game and a firm believer in many of its finer points. For example: A strike was a strike, and a ball was a ball. But little league umpires don’t often see it that way. Many of their strike zones are roughly as expansive as the Mojave Desert.
More times than he cares to remember, Bryant watched a close-but-not-really pitch go by only to be rung up for Strike 3.
“I wouldn’t swing at balls,” he said. “So I’d come back to the dugout crying because I just struck out again. I’d be like, ‘Dad, that’s not a strike. I’m not swinging at it because I can’t hit it.’ And he’d be like, ‘Then don’t swing at it.’ Those umpires made me cry at the time, but it was really an early sign for me in terms of my [hitting] eye and something I took pride in.”
It was fitting that Bryant would share that story on a day when he walked twice in a Cactus League game against the Royals, laying off low breaking balls from Ian Kennedy and high heat from Wily Peralta. Bryant now has walked eight times and struck out only seven — in a small sample size of spring plate appearances, sure, but it’s hardly insignificant.
This is the same player who struck out 199 times — second-most in baseball — and walked only 77 times in his 2015 NL Rookie of the Year season. He narrowed the gap a bit with 154 strikeouts and 75 walks in his 2016 MVP campaign, but then came serious progress in 2017: only 128 Ks (tied for 60th-most in the majors) and a beefed-up total of 95 bases on balls. That’s how his not-talked-about-enough .409 on-base percentage came to be.
If Bryant has a No. 1 individual goal this season, it’s to narrow that gap so much that it becomes essentially imperceptible.
“There’s a lot of really good hitters that have high averages and not the highest on-base percentages, but I don’t want to be just a good hitter — I want to be a great hitter,” he said. “So you take your walks when they come. It’s all about getting on base and scoring runs.”
Bryant could spend the rest of his career focusing on lowering his strikeouts and raising his walks and it would still be next to impossible to reach Joey Votto territory. The Reds first baseman walked 134 times last season, the most in baseball and 51 times more than he struck out. That’s some seriously rare air.
But maybe a ratio of 1:1 is achievable?
“One-to-one is obviously superstar level,” Bryant said. “I think Anthony [Rizzo] did that last year.”
It’s true. Cubs first baseman Rizzo made it to 1:1 for the first time in 2017 — barely — walking 91 times and striking out 90.
Manager Joe Maddon believes a key to boosting Bryant in that direction is to do a better job himself of recognizing when Bryant is tired and could use a day off. It would be nice if that happened before, let’s say, a five-K day instead of after the fact.
“I think if we combine rest more readily this year with his natural affinity to getting better, it’s possible,” Maddon said. “It’s definitely within his ability.”
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.