SAN DIEGO -- Everybody likes sitting behind home plate. It's the center-field camera that delivers most of the shots of a pitcher facing a batter.But to fully appreciate Kris Bryant, you want a seat behind the first-base dugout. It's the side view that gives you the three-dimensional look at how
SAN DIEGO -- Everybody likes sitting behind home plate. It's the center-field camera that delivers most of the shots of a pitcher facing a batter.
But to fully appreciate Kris Bryant, you want a seat behind the first-base dugout. It's the side view that gives you the three-dimensional look at how this second-year Cub has developed into the best power hitter in baseball.
Bryant stands 6-foot-5 and takes an exaggeratedly wide stance in the right-handed batter's box, his left foot about four feet away from his right foot.
As a local reference, think of the USS Midway, anchored in the Pacific Ocean, near the San Diego airport. Bryant's left foot is the bow; his right foot is the stern.
Once he's assumed that position, Bryant drops his torso about eight inches, crouching at the plate as if he's an undersized leadoff man looking for a walk. This gives him the sight line of a batter who is 5-foot-9, not 6-foot-5.
From that unusual base, Bryant regularly drives baseballs out of the park from one foul pole to the other. His shots to left and center fields are often of epic proportions, and the ones to right have plenty of carry.
Bryant, a marquee player in tonight's All-Star Game presented by MasterCard (coverage begins at 7:30 ET on FOX), has been sinking into his distinctive hitting position for a little more than four years. He first tried it as a sophomore at the University of San Diego, working with then-Toreros assistant coach Jay Johnson in a batting cage about eight miles from Petco Park.
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The results were immediate.
"From a swing-path standpoint, being 6-5, he'd have to drop the bat to get it to the bottom of the zone," said Johnson, now the head coach of Arizona, the 2016 College World Series runner-up. "That would cause him to hit the hardest top-spin balls you've ever seen in your life. By getting him lower, it allowed him to take a little more of a true swing to the ball and through the ball.
"So now if he missed, he was missing just underneath the ball, and with his bat speed and power, all those swings that were hard top-spin doubles down the left-field line became home runs to center field and right field because he was on 'em and through 'em better. It was just the positioning of his full body being closer to the pitch he was swinging at."
Bryant, who had hit .365 with nine home runs as a freshman at the University of San Diego, got off to a slow start in his sophomore season. He went 3-for-11 with two walks and five strikeouts in a three-game series at Vanderbilt before Johnson approached him about changing the upright approach that Bryant's father, former Red Sox Minor Leaguer Mike Bryant, had ingrained in him since Little League.
"Looking back on it, at the time I didn't really think it was that big of a change," said Bryant, who is hitting .286 and leading the National League with 25 home runs, including 14 since June 1. "Now I see that it was a pretty big change. I made it [early in my sophomore] season. It's what I needed to do. It's hard for a guy my height to stand up and hit straight up. Widening out my stance has really helped me tap into areas I probably couldn't have gotten to before."
Bryant put his new swing into play against the Ivy League Columbia Lions. In a four-game series in San Diego, he went 9-for-15 with five home runs.
A star was born.
Bryant says he doesn't really notice how wide his stance is until he sees himself in videos. But the deep crouch, he admits, took awhile to get used to.
"I think I've gotten to the point where I'm so used to it now," Bryant said. "The first time it felt a little different for me. I hit one way all my life, and now I'm hitting different. But now it feels completely normal."
While it was his father who instilled within Bryant the basics in hitting -- a fundamentally strong approach built from the Ted Williams book "The Science of Hitting" -- it's the adjustment that Johnson proposed that has created the hitting monster that the Cubs are unleashing.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon constantly juggles lineups, but he usually has Bryant hit in front of Anthony Rizzo, the left-handed-hitting first baseman who leads the NL with a 1.006 OPS. Rizzo has seen Bryant on a daily basis for more than a year now, but he's still impressed by how the ball jumps off his bat.
"Just how strong he is, naturally," Rizzo said when asked what he notices about his teammate. "His ability to just keep getting better is unbelievable. It's really awesome hitting behind him because I feel like I know every single pitch that's being thrown to him, how they pitch him. I wish I knew what was coming to me."
Johnson, who was USD's top recruiter and batting coach under head coach Rich Hill, has watched Bryant since he was a sophomore at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas. He says the ball jumped off his bat when he was 15, but that at some point Bryant's height began to work against him.
Pitchers were getting Bryant out on strikes at the bottom of the zone, which is why Johnson suggested the widened stance and crouch.
It's a style similar to the one that has put Jeff Bagwell on the threshold of the Hall of Fame, but it didn't look as extreme when put into use by Bagwell, who is five inches shorter than Bryant.
"I just felt like there was another tick in him," Johnson said. "[I] wanted to do two things: Decrease his strikeouts. Given that he's so tall, we spread him out and got him lower in his stance. That really got his eyes closer to the bottom of the strike zone, and he could recognize pitches down there better to lay off. And what it also did, it got him into the ground in terms of using his legs, which for a 6-5 guy is not always the easiest thing to do.''
A little more than a year after Johnson and Bryant went to work in the cage, Bryant was the second overall pick in the 2013 Draft. Now he's a guy who is sure to be noticed when he swings by the Rose Donuts location near USD, which he did on Monday morning, less than 12 hours after arriving here with a seven-player contingent of Cubs All-Stars.
Bryant plans to hit as many of his old haunts as possible while in town with his fellow All-Stars.
"I'm excited,'' he said. "I love it here. I like to stick to my roots, what got me here. I just love this city. It's awesome. It's treated me awesome. I can't say enough about it.''
After all, it was in San Diego that Johnson asked Bryant the question of his life -- how low can you go?
How wide too.
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com.