Maddon Admits Bryant May Need to Play Through Shoulder Pain

The idea of an athlete playing through pain is more than just an antiquated construct of masculinity, it can be downright harmful. Trying to “man up,” or whatever you’d like to call it, can be deleterious to an athlete’s immediate and long-term health and could end up harming his team as well.

That’s why I’m concerned with Yu Darvish getting a cortisone injection to counter his body’s natural inflammatory response and why the latest rhetoric surrounding Kris Bryant makes me cringe a little bit.

Bryant first jammed his left shoulder on a headfirst slide in May, presumably against the Reds (though it may have been on a play prior to the one I highlighted), and exacerbated it by trying to swing himself out of the resultant slump. But it takes only a cursory knowledge of kinesiology to understand that Bryant’s long, one-handed finish isn’t conducive to healing.

Therein lies the quandary: You can’t play if you can’t swing, but not swinging means you can’t get ready to play. And then there’s the possibility that nothing short of extended inactivity won’t have the shoulder feeling right.

“Maybe it’s just more of a manageable situation to begin with,” Joe Maddon told the media after Bryant took BP in the clubhouse cages prior to Friday’s game. “How much can he handle?”

Taken by itself, that question is fraught with peril, but it’s even more so when you pair it up with “manageable.” Or maybe those things actually provide a better context for what’s going on with Bryant’s situation.

“We’ve all been through that, where you get those kind of nagging things, and then whether sometimes historically you slide and put your hand down, all of a sudden that wrist bothers you for an entire season and gets well in November and December,” Maddon explained. “I really don’t know. It’s not totally gone.”

Though it’s fine enough so as to be imperceptible at times, there’s a line between risking further damage by playing hurt and simply having to grit your teeth through discomfort. That difference isn’t something you can allow Bryant himself to discern, but he’s got a big say in whether he can do the latter.

What I mean there is that the Cubs medical and training staff will be tasked with determining the severity of the shoulder injury and whether it can get worse with use. If it’s simply a matter of discomfort, which is more often than not the body’s way of saying Stop!, it comes down to the athlete determining whether they are still actually able to perform at a high level.

Bryant’s no stranger to that, having played through ankle, leg, and finger injuries last season, the latter of which was probably much worse than what anyone let on at the time. The MVP missed only one game after he hyperextended his left pinkie on a headfirst slide — sound familiar? — against the Braves in July, but the pain lingered for months.

“You deal with stuff like this all the time,” Bryant said of his finger in last August. “This year just happens to be my hand. I wouldn’t use that as an excuse for anything.

“[The finger]’s brutal. It swells up. It’s actually kind of annoying to have to go to the training room every day to do all this work just to feel good.”

As innocuous as that sounds, Bryant was reportedly playing through a “pain level of 8” throughout the second half of last season. The finger was one of those situations in which the injury couldn’t really get worse, though it was clear for a while after that it had sapped some of the power from Bryant’s explosive swing.

That was the case with the shoulder this season, as well. In 95 plate appearances between returning from being hit in the head by a German Marquez fastball and what I assume was the play responsible for his injury, Bryant slashed .293/.389/.622 with a .422 wOBA and a wRC+ of 168. In 126 plate appearance since, however, he posted a line of .248/.317/.345 with a .287 wOBA and a 78 wRC+.

The obvious dip in productivity and a flareup in the pain forced the Cubs to put Bryant on the DL. The Cubs held off activating him when he was first eligible this past Wednesday, but all indications are that he’ll be returning pretty soon. Carrie Muskat captured video of Bryant taking live BP and fielding grounders at third under the watchful eyes of training PJ Mainville prior to Saturday’s game and everything looked pretty smooth.

Again, it’s now a matter of determining how much and how big Bryant can go without risking any further injury. This is about more than just trying to win a game or three in July, or even the rest of the season. First, having Bryant at a fraction of his full capabilities isn’t going to help the team nearly as much. Even more important, you can’t mess with a career on a Hall of Fame trajectory that will certainly result in Bryant earning hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the end, I’ve got faith in the Cubs and Bryant to make the right decision when it comes to him coming back. And I hope that once he does, he’s able to silence some of his misguided critics — which, how do those people exist at all? — in the process.

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