This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2013 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Baseball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with 2010 ALL-USA player Kris Bryant from Bonanza (Las Vegas), who is leading all NCAA Division I players with 14 homers as a junior third baseman for the University of San Diego.
An 'A' student throughout high school, Kris Bryant began as a biology major at the University of San Diego. He has switched to finance, a choice that will likely come in handier, considering his pro baseball potential.
Bryant is hitting .351 and leads all Division I college hitters in home runs with 14 and walks per game (1.21). He’s also among the leaders in RBI (35) and slugging percentage (.847) and is considered a likely first-round choice in Major League Baseball's June amateur draft. Coming out of high school at Bonanza (Las Vegas), he was a 2010 All-USA baseball first-team player but wasn’t drafted until the 18th round.
“I have a bunch of motivating factors,” Bryant said. “That's definitely one of them. Coming out of high school, I thought I was better than I was selected. I couldn’t be happier than I am right now. Coming to San Diego was the best decision I’ve made. I’ve never doubted coming here. I just knew that that I would get better and keep on getting better. There are times when it’s all about trusting your ability.”
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At 6-5 and blessed with a strong arm, Bryant pitched some in high school, but it was clear that his value as an everyday player made him too useful to be a pitcher at San Diego. Growing up, he benefited from the hitting tutelage of his father, Mike Bryant, who played in the Boston Red Sox minor leagues and passed on to his son hitting advice he had been given by Charlie Lau and Ted Williams.
Bryant made an immediate impact at San Diego, earning West Coast Conference Co-Player of the Year honors as a freshman while hitting .365 (72-for-197) with 36 RBI and nine homers. Last year, he was a Baseball America first team All-American while hitting .366 with 14 homers and 57 RBI. He credits San Diego hitting coach Jay Johnson with helping his steady progression.
“The biggest thing he’s taught me is about being in the moment,” Bryant said. “I knew I had the tools to succeed, at least physically. I don’t know I had it in my head to succeed. He’s worked with me on going up there with a clear mind and being able to hit your pitch.”
Johnson said he spread out Bryant’s stance, focusing on using his power to all fields. Four of Bryant’s homers this year have been to right field. He also had Bryant crouch more, narrowing his strike zone and getting his eyes closer to the pitch. Bryant has gone from 55 strikeouts in 197 at-bats as a freshman to 38 in 213 at-bats last season and has only 25 this season in 111 at-bats.
“He’s really improved on his focus on using the middle of the field,” Johnson said. “That has made him less pitchable. You can’t just throw him fastballs away and get him out. When you watch him play, you can see his bat speed, the power and his running speed. But, I think the things that will help him hit at the next level are his intelligence and ability to make adjustments between at-bats. He’s evolved for a high power-high strikeout guy to a good hitter all-around. He’s a lot more polished.”
Bryant said he rarely tries to hit a homer, but is ready when a pitcher makes a mistake.
“My eyes do light up when I see a good pitch,” he said. “I am not necessarily trying to hit a home run, but if you want to hit a home run, you have to practice hitting them and I try to hit them in practice.”
Johnson said Bryant’s physical gifts reminds him of major leaguers Jayson Werth and Troy Glaus, but Johnson’s impact for the Toreros draws comparisons to a different athlete.
“When you think about what Tim Tebow meant to Florida football, that’s what he’s meant to USD baseball, on and off the field,” Johnson said.
At the next level, there’s some question where Bryant would play. There aren’t many 6-5 third basemen in the majors. Some scouts see him a likely corner outfielder or a first baseman.
“I am obviously more comfortable at third base,” Bryant said. “If the team wants me to play outfield or first base, I think I can do that. I am a big guy but I am athletic enough to play multiple positions on the field.”
“He’s literally the best player on our team at every position except catcher. He’s played center, right, third base and first.”