Kris Bryant has been one of the three most productive players in baseball since 2015, with only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout producing more fWAR in that time. He’s also among the top 25 Cubs of all time in terms of wins above replacement and just passed Ernie Banks for most home runs in a player’s first five years with the team.
The record-setting shot came early Sunday afternoon when he reached out and kissed a slider, hooking it into the bleachers in left-center to give the Cubs a 3-0 lead. It was his fourth homer since sitting out a couple games and receiving a cortisone injection in his right knee, and he went on to add another — just a solo shot — on a middle-middle fastball in his next at-bat.
Over the last six games, he’s batting an even .500 (11-for-22) with the five dingers, 13 RBI, and eight runs scored. Some of those hits have even come with runners in scoring position, which may come as a shock to a detractor or three out there. Heck, he even got plunked with the bases loaded. Guess that means he really can get hit with RISP.
In a weekend that saw the Cubs hang 47 runs on the Pirates, becoming just the fifth team in the modern era to score at least 14 in three straight games, Bryant stood out as much as anyone. It was fitting that his resurgence keyed the offensive explosion and not only earned the slugger plaudits, but etched his Cubs legacy a little deeper.
— Elias Sports Bureau (@EliasSports) September 15, 2019
“He’s got a statue out front,” Bryant told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian about passing Banks. “That gives me goosebumps when I am mentioned in the same sentence as that guy. It’s truly an honor. I just hope I’m making him proud.”
The Pirates series resulted in three really good days for the Cubs, but those have been a little fewer and further between for them this season. Same goes for Bryant over the course of his career, or so he told Bastian.
“There’s definitely more bad days than good days,” the former Rookie of the Year and MVP said. “But, you think about this and what I’ve been able to do in my five years here, it’s pretty special and it means a lot to me.”
Bryant recently admitted that expectations and the various distractions that have been popping up since at least this spring have weighed on the team as whole and on several individual players. But he was also confident in his own ability to block those things out and for the team to focus and allow its talent to win out.
For that to happen, Bryant is going to have to lead the charge. Even with Nicholas Castellanos cranking out doubles and homers at a crazy pace and Kyle Schwarber doing mad oppo damage, the Cubs are without both Javy Báez and Anthony Rizzo for at least a little while. And despite the recent spike in production, Bryant had only been hitting .249 with a .773 OPS and 102 wRC+ in his first 205 plate appearances out of the break.
That production had been declining prior to the cortisone shot, a clear sign that the discomfort was preventing him from creating a balanced swing. Sure enough, he immediately went out and homered against a 100 mph fastball up in the zone and singled against mid-90’s in the same spot the next night. Those pitches were eating him alive earlier, so turning those heaters around was a great sign.
But if you think Bryant is pleased with what he’s done, or that the criticism of him you see in various forms online is too severe, understand that he’s harder on himself than anyone else could be. And while some of our commenters here at CI have put that to the test, Bryant is by no means some coddled superstar who’s got to draw motivation from external sources.
“I’ve been that way my whole life, though — like I’ve said before — in anything I do,” Bryant shared in a detailed Q&A with Bastian. “School work. I didn’t need my mom or dad to tell me to do my work. Or, when I didn’t get good grades, it was always I was mad at myself.
“That’s baseball, too. Anything. I’m just never satisfied with what I do. That’s a good thing and a bad thing, but I try to use it as much to my advantage as I can. Hopefully, I can figure out ways to cope with it better, but I’ll always be my harshest critic, for sure.”
Shoot, does that grant carte blanche to every keyboard commando looking to explain how KB is the most overrated player around? Nah, though some will surely find a way to twist these words. No matter, the numbers will out in the end.
Aside from any of the criticism from himself or other sources, the one thing that really stood out from this conversation was Bryant’s recognition of Banks and how the two are linked. He is building a legacy in Chicago, one that could well end up being on par with the franchise’s all-time greats.
Could that be a factor in his potential desire to sign an extension with the Cubs prior to the expiration of his rookie contract? Many have already determined that isn’t an option because of Bryant’s agent and the reports of previous declinations of the team’s contract overtures. But the extent to which those things should be believed is very much open to debate, so it’s still entirely possible for a deal to be reached before Bryant reaches free agency.
We can worry about that another time, though, so for now let’s just keep the focus on what Bryant can do for the Cubs in the present. With a two-game division deficit and some big games coming up, he’s got the chance to put the team on his healthy shoulders and lift it with a knee that is feeling no (or at least less) pain.
That would certainly make for more good days than bad over the next couple weeks at least.