There’s nothing uniform about an Major League Baseball career, no blueprint that shows when growth will rise or fade or whether it simply will fizzle prior to anyone’s expectation. Everyone’s experience is different.
So during a season that has been defined by the power surges of sluggers like Cody Bellinger, Christain Yelich and George Springer, the start Kris Bryant has gotten off to may not register with the same kind of oomph.
Of course, that might be the case if so many people hadn’t wondered where Bryant has been. He came to MLB with an incredible buzz and then validated everyone’s faith by winning an MVP in 2016 when he clubbed 39 home runs and had 102 RBIs.
Since then, the Cubs infielder had been relatively pedestrian, an average player with a superstar’s gene pool. But there is an explanation.
Bryant is now 27 and by the looks of it may have rediscovered the qualities which made him the ying to Anthony Rizzo’s yang on the Chicago Cubs historic World Championship team.
Nothing compares to being healthy once again and from all indications the left shoulder injury that obstructed his 2018 season has cleared, allowing him to swing with more freedom and power.
“I’d like to say, now I’m a whole lot smarter, and just come to the field with less anxiety, less having to prove myself,” Bryant told USA Today. “Now, I know I belong here and I can just go out and play.”
That Bryant had receded is likely more optical illusion than truth. When he’s been healthy, he’s been a consistent contributor to the Cubs lineup all along.
But people tend to forget about the past when confronted with the present and Bryant played in only 102 games last season was not much of a factor in what was a disappointing season.
He had only 13 homers and 52 RBIs and hit .272 and ended up a symbol for a season that ended with a dud, consecutive single-game playoff losses to the Brewers and Colorado Rockies.
Look at him now: After a slow April during which he hit .232 with just one home, he’s having one of the best months of May in the Majors. His slash line over the last 15 games is .317/.431/.767 with eight homers and 17 RBIs. And last week, he had a three-homer game against the Washington Nationals that had everyone in the mood to reminisce.
That Bryant is hitting in lock step again with Rizzo and Javier Baez, the 2018 MVP finalist to Yelich, is one of the reasons everyone is beginning to think the Cubs can unseat the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.
Bryant’s big night came during a 14-6 win and produced five RBIs. Of historical note, his homers came in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, making him just the 12 player in the game’s history to homer in three straight innings
“It’s tied for first, I guess. I don’t know. …It was just a great night all around. Myself, a lot of the rest of us had great at-bats,” Bryant said.
“We have seen him hit the ball consistently harder over the last two or three weeks,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He looks like he (did) a couple of years ago, and he is also reacting with the same kind of confidence. It’s a good thing to watch right now.”
Bryant spent the offseason rehabbing and christened the effort by hitting a homer in his first at-bat of the Cactus League.
“You always kind of wonder how you’re going to respond, especially when you take about 60 games off – it’s never a great year,” Bryant said.
Bryant’s .937 OPS through Monday was in the Top 10 in the NL. His on-base percentage is .392. He has 11 homers and is hitting .263. Over his last 24 games, he has 10 homers and 24 RBIs, but his streak of reaching base in 26 straight games ended Monday against the Philadelphia Phillies with a rare 0-for-5.
“I just think his body in general feels better, and he learned a lot of lessons last year,” Maddon said. “What he knows about himself right now, mentally and physically at the plate, I think he’s continued to learn. It’s such an industry-wide situation where if a guy struggles a bit, has to look at his video and think automatically, ‘I’m doing something wrong.’
“Most of the time, they’re swinging at bad pitches. Most of the time, it’s not necessarily physical.”