It's not easy for first-round Draft picks to surprise anybody, to surpass already high expectations with a season that makes even their biggest supporters rethink their predictions.
Kris Bryant did all of that in 2014.
The Cubs took Bryant out of the University of San Diego -- where, among other things, he hit a legendary homer and won the Golden Spikes Award -- with the No. 2 selection last year, and he had a debut befitting such a high pick. Playing his way across three levels, Bryant won a Florida State League championship with Class A Advanced Daytona and hit .336 with nine homers, 14 doubles and 32 RBIs in 36 total games, then went on to take home MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League.
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Not even that impressive first crack at the pros was a good indicator of how well Bryant would perform in his first full season. With a .325/.438/.661 slash line, the 22-year-old third baseman also hit 43 home runs to not only win the Joe Bauman Award but leave the yard more than any other professional baseball player in 2014. His 110 RBIs put him third among Minor Leaguers and, oh yeah, he stole 15 bases. And he did all this while playing in the Minors' two toughest levels.
Making the jump
Bryant started the year with Tennessee in the Double-A Southern League, an ambitious assignment for any youngster with only a couple months of pro experience under his belt. Such a leap requires a period of adjustment. Bryant was not immune. He only had two hits in his first nine at-bats over three games.
But those two hits? They were both home runs, as he knocked one out in his Double-A debut and did it again the next night.
Mick Gillispie, the Smokies' broadcaster, knew before the year started that the club was going to have a rare kind of prospect, perhaps even more exciting than Javier Baez, who had played for Tennessee in 2013.
"At first, I don't think people really got it. They were like, 'Yeah, OK…'" Gillispie recalled. "But by [June], not just at Smokies games, but around the league, people were saying, 'OK, we got something special here.'"
Bryant was batting .281 by the end of his first month, but he hit an astonishing .405 (best in the Minors) across 29 May games, also clubbing 12 homers and plating 34. On May 7, he hit two homers and narrowly missed a third with a double high off the wall while plating six. After that game, he told MiLB.com he wasn't aware of how his performance was stacking up in the eyes of others.
"The only expectations that matter are the ones you put on yourself," Bryant said. "My expectations for myself are higher than any from my friends or fans or family. I've put the bar pretty high, so I don't worry about what people have to say about me, good or bad."
But his production certainly wasn't going unnoticed. In fact, the attention soon overwhelmed the Smokies staff.
"It got to the point where media constantly wanted to talk to him. We've never had a player like that before," Gillispie said. "We've had players get interviewed a lot, but not like Kris. The only thing similar was when Ryne Sandberg was our manager. With Ryno, we did press conferences at the start of every series. It got to the point where we had to do that with Kris. We were setting up to do them at the beginning of the series right when he got promoted."
A promotion, of course, seemed inevitable at that point -- Bryant's batting average continued to climb, and he had homered in three straight games against Jacksonville from June 7-9. But a move to Triple-A this season wasn't part the original plan.
"Going into the year, we thought he was going to stay the entire year in Tennessee," said Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison. "We thought he would probably have some struggles, battle through some things and have to figure some things out. Boy, he went out there and proved us all wrong."
Before his departure, Bryant left the Southern League with a couple thiings to remember him by. One of the three homers in the Jacksonville series was perfectly timed to make Gillispie look clairvoyant. The broadcaster grew up in Baltimore, and Bryant always brought to mind a certain Orioles player.
"Kris Bryant reminds me of Cal Ripken -- his personality, his approach to the game, he grew up around baseball [because] his dad was a player. All the things that make Bryant special remind me of Ripken," said Gillispie.
He was making this comparison on the air with Bryant at the plate against the Suns.
"I'm telling this story about this commercial where Cal Ripken comes up and there's this lady who's in one of the houses across the street from the stadium and she says, 'Move your cars. He's up.' And all the people are shuttering their windows, and I'm telling the story and how Bryant reminds me of Ripken, and I barely get it out of my mouth, and Bryant hits a home run."
In his last series for the Smokies, hosting the Mississippi Braves, Bryant went without a homer but posted a .435 on-base percentage, a .444 slugging percentage and a pair of doubles. When the dust had settled, Gillispie went to visit Mississippi pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn, who was formerly Tennessee's pitching coach, and he struck up a conversation with some Braves starters.
"They were really excited about how well they'd done against Kris. They hadn't given up any home runs in the series, so they were really happy," Gillispie recalled. "I go back and look, and I see that Kris was 6-for-18 with four walks, three RBIs and four runs scored. And they were happy they contained him! That really illustrates the kind of hitter he is."
A new adjustment
Another new level meant a new transition, of course.
"Hitting is harder at Double-A than the lower levels, and hitting at Triple-A is even harder," said Triple-A Iowa hitting coach Brian Harper. "He made the adjustment to both."
In fact, his period of adjustment in the Pacific Coast League looked similar to his jump to the Southern League, if more exaggerated. Through his first 21 at-bats with the I-Cubs, Bryant had just five hits. They were all home runs.
"A couple of them were big home runs, game-winning home runs or home runs that put the team ahead," Harper said.
"You could tell right away, he had the right approach. His approach was a professional approach. When I say that, I mean he had a Major League approach. Real good hitters in the Major Leagues use the center of the field and go the other way. Here's a real young guy who hits like that in his first full year."
Speaking in the midst of that stretch, Bryant told MiLB.com, "Maybe all my hits here will be home runs," he said with a laugh. "It's kind of a weird little stat, but I've just been blessed with power ever since I was little, so I kind of realized that I had it at a young age and just ran with it."
It makes sense, then, that the power carried into Triple-A -- just one more step on the road. But Harper knows that's a rare thing.
"A lot of guys hit for power and have a great season in their first full year, but they're usually at low A and A-ball," Harper said. "And here's Kris, and he's hitting like that in Double-A and Triple-A. That's the thing that impresses me the most.
"In the higher levels, it's more of an adjustment in mental approach. It's paying attention to patterns, paying attention to how pitchers are attacking you, because they're more experienced and have better command of their stuff. Triple-A pitchers can pretty much throw a breaking ball over at any point, so you're not necessarily going to get a fastball on 2-0."
Bryant's mental sharpness helped him make the adjustment in no time. He strung together a seven-game hitting streak beginning on June 22 and culminating with a pair of three-hit games on June 27-28.
"He has a very simple setup, a simple approach," Iowa manager Marty Pevey said. "He's a good kid, a hard worker. He comes prepared, gets prepared."
"A kid like Kris," Harper said, "will get pitchers trying to pitch around him, and he was very smart about making the adjustment and watching how the other pitchers handle him. That's the biggest thing about the higher levels, including the big leagues.
"His approach works at higher levels. You see a lot of young hitters with power who are really pull-conscious. Being pull-conscious doesn't work at the higher levels. Kris wasn't like that, even when he signed. He was always trying to use the middle of the field. Kris was right there with a higher-level approach right away."
After hitting .188 through his first four games, Bryant raised his average to .365 by the Fourth of July. By season's end, his PCL mark had leveled off to .295. Even though he only played half the season there, the 21 homers he hit for Iowa tied him for 13th in the league.
So, what now?
Some were surprised Bryant wasn't among the prospects the Cubs called up in September, and it's hard to imagine he won't have a legitimate shot at making the Majors out of Spring Training. As good as he is -- and by all accounts, his defense is nearly as impressive as his hitting -- Bryant still has more to learn.
"Of course, he has some holes to fill," Pevey said. "He knows it and he's working on it."
The Cubs' director of player development agreed.
"He's still learning how pitchers will attack him," Madison said. "They'll try to tie him up and get inside where those long arms make it tough to get to, but he was able to make adjustments pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat, laying off pitches.
"He did a good job, but there are still, shockingly, a lot of things he can do to continue to get better. He'll be the first one to tell you he has a lot of work to do."
There's no reason to doubt Bryant will do that work, and with aplomb.
"No question he's ready to do whatever the Cubs want him to do," said Harper. "He has the aptitude and the work ethic, the off-the-field behavior. … It's what you dream of. I had another kid who was similar when I was the catching coordinator with the Giants, with Buster Posey. You could see right away he was a special kid, and he had a special aptitude, and Kris is right there.
"It's kind of funny. If you look at the home runs and the average and all the things he did, and he's a very good third baseman, but the thing that stands out the most is the way he enjoys playing the game and playing the game hard."