Imagine Paul Bunyan has come to life. Not the dead-eyed statue from Fargo but the actual mythic Midwestern giant. Also instead of being a lumberjack, he hits home runs for the Chicago Cubs. Maybe he uses an axe handle for a bat, you're free to add that detail if you wish. Either way, he's super big, super strong, and hits many, many home runs. That's Kris Bryant. It's almost inevitable that he grows a beard.
This is baseball we're talking about, which means that, Bunyanesque physique or not, it was far from inevitable that Bryant would end up hitting lots of home runs. Lots of people are huge—I blame our diets and sedentary lifestyles, personally—and lots of people are strong; some people are even both. But very few living humans can hit home runs. Bryant can actually hit. He looks like he can hit, but most people who look like they can hit can't hit because most people, regardless of looks, can't hit. That is what got him to the Majors as a 23-year-old, and what will likely keep him there for many years.
In the first stretch of his first season—delayed, as is the fashion, by the Cubs stashing him in the minors for a few weeks to delay his free agent eligibility—Bryant has 10 homers already. He's doing other things well too, hitting for average (.279), getting on base (.383), and playing good defense (playing good defense, I swear!). Those are vitally important but if we're being honest, they're also less interesting. This dude hit 43 homers in the minor leagues last year! Yes it will be interesting to see how he adjusts and translates that talent in the Majors, but also: dingers.
I saw Kris Bryant in Arizona this past spring training. I didn't go there to see him, but with Bryant you can't really help but notice. The match up that day in early March was the Cubs versus the Mariners; Felix Hernandez was throwing for Seattle. I was sitting down the left field line. It was the first inning and I was trying to concentrate on the game and keep my skin from sliding off my body in the Arizona heat. Bryant came up. I leaned over to tell a friend how good he was supposed to be and then Bryant did this:
It is hard to tell, from this video, just how far this homer went, although I can tell you that it was very far indeed. It is easy to tell, from the sound of the ball off the bat and the fans watching it vacate the area code, how quickly it left. he next time up he walked, a result that everyone in my party was mock-disappointed to see. "What? You don't hit it 420 feet every time up? Rip off!!" Totally classic stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. Then, in his third at-bat, he hit it 420 feet again. The feat seemed to say, "Hey, idiots down the left field line! This shit is real and hard and I'm doing it anyway so please keep it down."
That was the end of our mock anything. It's hard to be ironic and detached when a dude is doing this sort of thing to baseballs.
I bring these terribly non-topical homers up because, recently, Kris Bryant did it against Clayton Kershaw, and it counted. Kershaw has had a particularly bizarre season, striking out people at his typically Cy Young-type pace while also seeing his crazy you-will-swing-and-miss-and-quite-possibly-hit-yourself-in-the-face-on-your-backswing slider whacked around and giving up bombs at an implausible rate. This has led to Kershaw throwing his curveball a bit more. Kershaw's is normally a thing of beauty. You can almost see the ball's arms shoot up as it reaches the apex, yells "AAAAhhhh…" and then falls away into nothingness.
But that's when Kershaw throws it right, which if you count the awards he's earned is most of the time. This time, though, facing Bryant in the third inning with the count 1-2, it wasn't quite as good. The pitch rolled up to the plate like a toothless old dog facing a new and sprightly mailman, undeterred but helpless just the same. It still came in 21 mph slower than Kershaw's previous fastball—Clayton Kershaw is really good at pitching—which can lead a hitter to swing and miss twice if he's not prepared. Bryant was. He kept his weight back, then uppercutted the pitch deep into the right field bleachers for a two-run homer.
Five innings later, against Adam Liberatore, Bryant did it again, this time off a 94mph fastball. It's true that Kershaw's pitch was a hanger and Liberatore's fastball was belt-high over the plate. Pitchers make those pitches all the time without said pitches winding up the property of someone sitting in a $12 seat in the second deck, or bouncing along Waveland Avenue. The most astonishing thing about Bryant, at least so far, is the percentage of these defective offerings he has violently turned into souvenirs. What makes Kris Bryant the prospective major league star different is that his elite power—an exceedingly rare thing on its own—is combined other important baseball skills. Without his power Bryant might still be a very good baseball player, if perhaps not quite the boldface six-exclamation-point thing he could be. But with that power, and everything else? Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com gave Bryant a 70 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale this past February. That's not rating Bryant's power, that's Bryant.
He is not perfect, of course. Bryant strikes out a lot, a hair under 30 percent of the time so far this season, and he has three hits and eight strikeouts in the six games he's played since his multi-homer barrage. He swings and misses on 15.1 percent of the pitches he sees, fifth most in all of baseball. But, here's the thing. While that's a list headed by Avisail Garcia (18.2 percent), Jimmy Paredes (17.7) and Ryan Howard (17.3), it also prominently features Giancarlo Stanton (15.2), J.D. Martinez (16.0), George Springer (15.5), and Joc Pederson (14.4). In other words, swinging and missing a lot, while not something anyone sets out to do, doesn't make you a bad hitter by itself. The last four names are some of the better hitters in the game. Kris Bryant already looks like a good fit on that list.
Bryant is flawed, but baseball is a sport that forgives flaws, even embraces them. There will be Bunyanesque cuts that meet nothing but air, for Bryant and everyone else. But when he connects, you'll recount it months after seeing it happen, even if it occurred in a meaningless exhibition game under a sun so hot it makes you doubt what you're seeing is real. The times when Bryant waits on a Kershaw curveball and sends it into low orbit are worth the whiffs. We know that now. The Cubs know that now. Clayton Kershaw knows it now, too. For everyone but Kershaw and his fellow pitchers, it should be a lot of fun to learn what comes next.