Kris Bryant is an All-Star again, but there's room for improvement

PITTSBURGH -- Calling it the "most special" selection for him yet, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant made his third All-Star team just a few months removed from completing rehab on an injured left shoulder that hampered him for much of last season.

"It's just nice when you don't make it for a couple years, then you make it, it's like, 'Yeah, I'm still the same player,'" Bryant said Sunday afternoon.

The All-Star selection comes after some rare criticism, at times, over the past 12 months or so -- albeit mostly on social media. Many simply expected an MVP season every year, especially after Bryant won the award the second season of his career.

"It's a nice reward to come into this year and put some of the other stuff to rest and just play baseball," he said.

He is a deserving All-Star again, but even Bryant would admit that he would like some of his numbers to be better. The 27-year-old sports a .935 OPS as a new month begins on Monday. That mark is higher than in his Rookie of the Year season (.858) and right about the level of his MVP campaign (.939). But there's one stat that has him -- and others -- confused: batting with runners in scoring position.

Bryant is hitting .196, which is in line with the rest of the team, as the Cubs rank 14th in the National League with runners in scoring position. On Sunday, they went just 2-for-12 in that category in their loss to the Cincinnati Reds, leading to their first losing month since May 2017.

Breaking Bryant down further, he has compiled one of the stranger splits in recent memory. With a man on first base, he's hitting .406, but with one on second base, his average drops to .063.

Weird, huh?

"Of course we'd like to control when we get our hits, when we get our home runs," Bryant said. "But I know we can't do that. As frustrating as that is, we need to stick with it. It's about having good at-bats and passing the torch to the next guy. When we do that, we're at our best."

Bryant didn't make excuses or blame any struggles on how he's being pitched. In fact, he was as honest as a hitter can be, blaming the difference in production with men in scoring position on the mental part of the game, especially when hitting second in the lineup.

"Your [RBI] opportunities are a lot less," Bryant said. "A couple years ago, I started to put too much pressure on myself because 'Look, there's a dude out there finally.' Then it kind of speeds up a little bit. Sometimes as a unit, I think, we do that. You finally see a guy on third with less than two outs, and you're like, 'I have to get him home, I have to,' and you're pressing, and it doesn't work out. And you're walking back to the dugout, shaking your head.

"I don't think they are pitching us any different with runners on first compared to second or second and third. It's just that sometimes things work out that way."

Interestingly, Bryant has been fairly successful in bringing home a runner from third with fewer than two outs, having delivered eight times in 13 opportunities. That's well above league average. So nothing is cut-and-dried, and any issues he has had, the entire team has experienced. For example, teammate Jason Heyward is hitting a lofty .356 with a man on first and -- you won't be surprised -- just .154 when that runner gets to second.

It's maddening to the manager as well.

"You get to the point where you beat yourself up so much, and then your performance doesn't come through," Joe Maddon said. "The only way that's going to happen is if we chill and just go up there and let it fly a little bit."

Considering Bryant's previous comments, Maddon might have been talking directly to him when he said to chill out. The manager was clear in his message.

"This is a perfect example of the velvet hammer as opposed to the sledgehammer," Maddon said. "The more you talk about it, you can get obtrusive and in the way and really get you the exact opposite of the result you're looking for. I really want to stress with them, go play. It's a game."

In Bryant's case, he might have to simply accept the fact that his RBI totals aren't going to be high for the time being. Since quintessential leadoff man Dexter Fowler moved on from the Cubs a couple of years ago, they haven't exactly set the table for anyone hitting second.

This season, the team ranks 13th in the NL in on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. In an attempt to give Bryant more ducks on the pond, Maddon has batted his pitcher eighth 20 times this season -- and a regular hitter ninth -- leading into the top of the order. But still, the Cubs rank 13th in on-base percentage from the 9-hole.

"I just have to give up that mindset, 'Hey, I'm not going to get that many opportunities at the top of the order,'" Bryant said. "I think my first year I hit 3-4-5 in a lot of games. It's just a different approach hitting 1-2."

It's true. Bryant had more at-bats hitting third and fifth, rather than second, in 2015, when he drove in 99 runs. This year, he has had more than 20 fewer at-bats with runners in scoring position than teammate Javier Baez, who hits fourth. It's the reality of Bryant's place in the order.

Bryant and his teammates probably need to listen to their manager and relax when the opportunities arise. Make what you will of it, but Bryant's hard hit rate is 32% when runners are in scoring position, compared to 42% when they aren't. Accordingly, his batting average on balls in play is just .194 with RISP, but it shoots up to .337 when there's a man on first or the bases are empty. There could be some bad fortune mixed in there as well.

"If you're just getting the tiniest bit better with runners in scoring position, that's huge because we'll win those one-run ballgames when we need to," Bryant said.

He might not be wrong, as the Cubs are just 12-14 in one-run affairs, having left extra runners on base in many of those contests, Sunday included. So what's the answer, at least for him, when the desire to bring home the runs -- in limited opportunities -- begins to mount?

"I think that comes with experience, realizing you've been in that situation before, so don't put any extra pressure on yourself," Bryant said. "Just go out there, and have a good at-bat."
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