Discretion is the better part of valor, except when it comes to an athlete trying to play through an injury only they truly know the extent of. Playing at less than 100% not only hampers production, but can also lead to additional issues as the body compensates by shutting down or activating different links in the kinetic chain. That’s likely the case for Kris Bryant, who left Monday’s game with lower right oblique tightness that may well have been spurred by his wrist and finger issues.
It’s a case of slammed if you do, slammed if you don’t for Bryant, who still would have been called soft even if he’d sat out longer to recover more fully from those earlier nicks. The trouble is that he was able to play through them, or at least that he successfully convinced the Cubs he could play, because the season is too short to facilitate proper convalescence. Dude’s got torn ligaments in his left ring finger and may have a fractured wrist, not exactly things that just go away in a couple weeks.
Though the circumstances aren’t quite the same, Bryant’s situation closely follows that of Yu Darvish in 2018. The righty had come over to the Cubs on a six-year, $126 million deal to ostensibly supplant the beloved Jake Arrieta as staff ace. Combined with his disappointing World Series performance with the Dodgers, the big contract and the loss of a franchise hero had fans looking at Darvish like an unwelcome step-parent.
Then came a disastrous season marred by recurring elbow soreness that went undiagnosed for months, leading fans and pundits alike to decry Darvish’s mental weakness. Athletes are given multiple chances when it comes to all manner of character flaws, including domestic violence, but the cardinal sin is apparently not exemplifying the height of macho toughness. That’s because the inability to comprehend their talent also negates their humanity for many onlookers.
Darvish eventually had surgery to correct the effects of a stress reaction, a relatively little-know malady that often goes overlooked because it can’t be easily discerned by more common imaging techniques. For the record, that’s the same injury that shut Brandon Morrow down and effectively ended his career. Thing is, the causes of those pitchers’ problems weren’t revealed until so late that the concrete was already curing on fans’ perception of them.
Such is the case with Bryant, who’s battled myriad injuries since the 2018 season and still has legions of people thinking a pitch to the head from the Rockies’ German Marquez is the nexus for all of this. Despite very clear empirical evidence to the contrary, it’s difficult to change a narrative — particularly when it involves something like head injuries, which are obviously a huge topic in sports — once it’s gotten legs.
Bryant wore that pitch on April 22, then sat for a few games before returning on April 28 and going hitless with two strikeouts over his next eight plate appearances. Overall, though, his offensive production was almost identical in his first 95 plate appearances following the beanball* (.293/.389/.622, .422 wOBA, 168 wRC+) to what it had been in 89 PAs prior (.319/.461/.536, .423 wOBA, 169 wRC+) Then came the fateful headfirst slide against the Reds on May 19 that jammed his left shoulder and effectively ruined his season.
The shoulder was a big deal at the time and was fairly easy for most people to comprehend, but last season’s knee injury was a little more stealthy. Bryant entered the All-Star festivities batting .297 with a .955 OPS and 148 wRC+, all better marks than he’d posted in his 2016 MVP campaign. Then he tweaked his knee when his cleat caught in a turf mat during BP and the discomfort persisted throughout the second half. He still managed to hit .261 with an .829 OPS and 116 wRC+ in the second half, but his exit velocity dropped by 3 mph and he wasn’t as explosive.
This season is whole ‘nother animal entirely and seemed cursed well before a diving play in left field saw Bryant roll over his left hand. As strange as it seems now, staying in the game and blasting a homer in his next at-bat was probably the most damning thing he could have done to his public image. Since he could play, people reasoned, the injury must not have been that bad. He didn’t go to the IL for several days — a maddening trend for the Cubs that’s been going on for several years — and only missed two weeks, so everything must have been fine after that.
Except it wasn’t and it isn’t, nor is the idea that a player who has pushed through three separate injuries that required cortisone or other painkilling injections — shoulder, knee, wrist — somehow lacks heart or desire. If something is bad enough to demand those measures, it’s a helluva lot more serious than aches and pains weekend warriors complain about before popping an Aleve and cracking a beer.
“If somebody wants to criticize Kris for getting injured, bad people do that,” David Ross said after the game. “Good people don’t do that.”
We should know more about this latest injury soon, but history and common sense tell us the prognosis isn’t great. Oblique issues are a more recent development when it comes to injury descriptions and they are somewhat amorphous, so it’s not always easy to know exactly how significant they are. That said, anything that affects the musculature of a baseball player’s sides or core is going to be deleterious to the ability to create rotational force.
“It was kind of positive that he could still feel like he could do a little bit,” Ross told the media. “But another at-bat and something serious happens, and then he’s done for the season. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow, but I’m trying to hold out hope.”
Ross also spoke about frustration, both his own and Bryant’s, at what has been a snakebit campaign from the very start. There’s no doubt Bryant wants to come back and play this season, but it’s almost certainly best for his career and for the team to not rush back. Playing at 50% strength isn’t going to help the Cubs and could end up causing even more physical damage that will only add to his overall recovery time. As hard as it might be to swallow, sitting it out might be in Bryant’s best interest at this point.
It would be incredibly obtuse to say I’ve faced the same kind of decision, but I still feel I can understand where KB is coming from. As someone who stupidly prolonged knee reconstruction in order to keep playing high school sports and who subsequently came back way too early from said surgery just to play intramural college sports, I understand how desire can override wisdom. I also understand that a lot of people are going to trash him no matter what he does, at least based on my Twitter feed.
Look, I understand how easy it is to fall into the trap of viewing athletes as demigods and thereby discounting their humanity. Hell, I don’t know how many times I’ve regaled my kids with tales of Bo Jackson’s exploits, highlighted by how he continued his MLB career after getting an artificial hip. It just feels gross to me when people feel compelled to tell others what they should and shouldn’t be able to do with their own bodies, a sentiment that extends well beyond athletic endeavors.
A lot of the criticism in Bryant’s case comes down to money, specifically the erroneous report that he’d turned down an extension offer for “well north of $200 million” and the protracted grievance hearing that was finally resolved this past January. People who would gladly cut off a leg for the princely sums earned by athletes can’t look past the number of zeroes on the check, so they see players as ungrateful prima donnas. As unfortunate as that is, I’ve learned there’s little use in trying to supply proper context to the willfully ignorant when big salaries are involved.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to climb down from my soap box and do my best to avoid the comments on this one. In the meantime, please remember that Kris Bryant doesn’t owe you anything and just because you played through a bum finger in high school or hit a homer in your beer league championship game on a sprained ankle doesn’t mean you understand what he or other pros are going through.
Editor’s note: It’s entirely unsurprising that multiple Facebook comments have mentioned how Bryant hasn’t hit since the beanball, so I wanted to add this for the edification of those who will actually read it. If we remove the first two games after Bryant returned, plate appearances in which he may have understandably felt residual effects, his slash line was .320/.414/.680 with a .453 wOBA and 188 wRC+ over 87 PAs.
That’s not just good, it’s incredibly elite.
So prior to the shoulder injury, KB was at .305/.427/.583 with a .424 wOBA and 169 wRC+ in 185 plate appearances. Those numbers are all well above his MVP stats, in case you were wondering. After May 19, 2018, he went .252/.338/.382 with a .315 wOBA and 96 wRC+ over 272 PAs. It’s downright ignorant to put his drop in production on a hit by pitch.