How Kris Bryant handled the hype, earned respect in Cubs clubhouse


How Kris Bryant handled the hype, earned respect in Cubs clubhouse

MILWAUKEE — The Cubs turning their clubhouse into a momentary mosh pit during the middle of the game shows how much they’ve welcomed Kris Bryant to The Show.

That’s how the Cubs responded to Bryant’s first career home run on Saturday night at Miller Park, emptying the dugout, giving him the silent treatment and making him take a few extra steps up the tunnel to celebrate with teammates.  

The party didn’t last long during a 12-4 blowout loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. But it’s telling how a team responds to a rookie who comes in with so much hype — and how he handles all the attention and the daily failure.  

[MORE: Respect 90: Kris Bryant will lead Cubs by example]

“You just try and make the kid’s transition as easy as possible, especially with all of the expectations and the outside noise surrounding him,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said Sunday. “We try and kind of dumb all that stuff down in the clubhouse, because to us, it really doesn’t mean that much. We all know how good he is. We know what he’s capable of.

“Those are the kind of things where I think Javy Baez got into a little bit of that and maybe it messed with him some. And that’s what we don’t want to have happen. We want guys to come up here, whether it’s 'Addie' (Addison Russell) or Bryant, and just blend in and be one of the guys.

“Once you can get over that transition, then it’s just a baseball game. It’s nine innings, just like it was anywhere else.”

Bryant brought some of this on himself. He put a smile on his face and a target on his back while authorizing super-agent Scott Boras to rip Cubs ownership during the service-time saga in spring training. 

[RELATED: WATCH: Cubs' Kris Bryant hits first career HR, returns to empty dugout]

Baseball has an old-school code, too many unwritten rules and enough problems trying to attract casual fans and the younger generation. Anyone who gets his own adidas billboard across the street from the Wrigley Field marquee before his major-league debut — and shoots a Red Bull commercial with a goat while at Triple-A Iowa — will be under the microscope.

“I really just want to be another guy in the locker room,” Bryant said. “I’m just trying to help the team win. I don’t want to be bigger than anybody else here. I’m just here trying to help them out.”

Bryant found other ways to help the team during a home-run drought that stretched into his 21st game in a Cubs uniform, seeing 4.34 pitches per plate appearance, getting on base more than 40 percent of the time, making plays at third base and showing surprising speed on the bases.

“I never mentioned anything to him,” Anthony Rizzo said. “I’ve kind of been in those shoes before, so I’m sure he’s heard it from mom, dad, girlfriend, friends, brother, cousins. He’s hearing it from a thousand different angles. It’s good to get it out of the way.”

[NBC SHOP: Buy a Kris Bryant jersey]

Manager Joe Maddon thought Rizzo organized the walkout stunt. It certainly sounded like something Rizzo would do, but the All-Star first baseman gave credit to bench coach Dave Martinez. Arrieta called it his production, along with veteran catcher David Ross.   

Bryant isn’t a diva or a me-first guy. He’s a baseball gym rat. Teammates notice that.

“This is a great clubhouse,” Rizzo said. “You got guys like ‘Rossy’ who allow him to come in, (Jon) Lester. There’s no egos in here. (Bryant’s) one of the guys. He’s one of our friends now. And hopefully we play together for a long time.

“Some guys come in and get different treatment, but we have help in this clubhouse. We just want you to be you.”

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to team president Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season.

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs


Cubs Talk Podcast: It's time for a culture change for the Cubs

After the Cubs Convention, fans left still uncertain about the team headed into the 2020 season. Host David Kaplan and NBC Sports Chicago Cubs writer Tim Stebbins discuss what they took from Cubs Con, the culture change that is coming to the organization and a realistic possibility that the Cubs are looking into disgruntled star Nolan Arenado.

Listen to the episode here or in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.