'I delete Twitter during the season': Can Kris Bryant silence his newfound doubters?

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ATLANTA -- When it comes to criticism via social media, no one is off-limits. Not even the stars of the game. At least not in baseball. There's too much failure and there are too many games to avoid being the target at some point during the long season. Even if an injury is cause for your struggles -- or your absence from the lineup -- it doesn't matter. Twitter has never been a haven for nuanced reasoning, and it harbors plenty of instant outrage.

Just ask Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant, who had to face that negativity for much of the season last year while nursing a shoulder injury that sapped his bat of power -- when he was healthy enough to play. Despite all his honors, which include college player of the year (2013), minor league player of the year (2014), National League Rookie of the Year (2015) and NL MVP (2016), Bryant says 2018 wasn't the most positive experience.

"I delete Twitter during the season," he said recently. "One thing can stick with you. It's crazy how much it's changed. Just since I got drafted [in 2013], it's changed. Back then, you could go through it, and there were negative things, and there were some good stuff. Now it's straight negativity. Nothing good comes from it."

Bryant was in and out of the lineup last season after he hurt his shoulder while sliding into first base. His numbers dipped to career lows, including an OPS of "just" .834 at the end of the season. Then, in the offseason, ESPN reported that the Cubs were listening more than usual when it came to trade possibilities involving Bryant, mostly because he was getting deeper into his arbitration-eligible seasons and closer to free agency in 2022.

The combination of factors got to Bryant -- but not necessarily in a bad way. It motivated him.

"In a way, it's good thing," he said. "In this game, when you start to feel complacent, that's where you start to go downhill.

"I feel like if you're just fed positive things, throughout, over and over, it can get old. If you see yourself not doing as well as you want to and people are saying certain things, then you turn it around, 'Boo-yah, I got you.' It's a good feeling -- and not just in baseball."

Then again, as the trade discussion took on a life of its own in Chicago, Bryant wondered.

"I was like, 'Jeez, what have I done?'" he said with a smile.

Bryant said he did his best to avoid going down what he called a "Twitter rabbit hole," but it didn't really matter. His demeanor has always led him to embrace the struggle and, in this case, the criticism. He took the negativity into the weight room, strengthening his injured shoulder and his entire upper body. Then he went to work on his swing. He attacked his workouts earlier than normal -- mostly due to the Cubs' early exit from the playoffs.

"I would come to him to hit, and he would tell me he needs another 30 minutes [for his workout]," Kris' dad, Mike Bryant, said in a phone interview. "I would come back, and he would need more time."

The work paid off. Bryant looked as good as ever when spring training opened for the Cubs, and he declared his injured left shoulder fully healed. The work on his upper body was evident, but he wasn't bulky.

"He needs to be long and strong," Cubs strength coach Tim Buss said.

The power lost because of the shoulder injury has seemingly returned, as Bryant had a good spring and is off to a good start at the plate, hitting .308 in three games. His teammates don't completely buy that the criticism drove him, but he is human, after all.

"Maybe that's a small variable, but Kris has expectations for himself that no one can put a limit on," first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "That's what I admire about him because no one is going to tell him he can't do something. Makes it fun to watch."

The Cubs would never admit it, but if criticism is a motivating factor, then a trade article about him or even a misplaced Twitter rant can be of good use. Bryant's whole demeanor changed as spring approached. Not only is he more motivated than ever, but he also has become more outspoken. From defending other union members to having fun at a rival city's expense, Bryant is out there more than before.

"When he came to spring training, you got the sense he had an edge," general manager Jed Hoyer said with a smile. "Everyone finds motivation in different places. I like the fact that he is talking with a little more conviction than normal. That's a great thing."

Said Rizzo: "He has three or four years of experience now. I like seeing him speak his mind, have that edge. It's always been inside. Now it's coming out."

If you can believe it, Bryant claims this isn't the first time he has heard negativity. For someone as loaded with trophies recognizing his performance as he is, there were doubters. Again, it's the social media age, which makes it hard to ignore. Young players today have grown up with it.

"Even in high school, people would say stuff," Bryant said. "'Oh, he can only hit in BP. He's a 5 p.m. hitter. He can't play infield. He's too skinny.' All that stuff. It's finding a way to channel it to push you a little further."

Despite proving all the doubters wrong and despite all the accolades he has earned, Bryant still hears criticism. His being injured last season opened the door for more of it, as unfair as that seems.

In baseball, there's always a statistic that can make a player look bad. For Bryant, it's hitting with runners in scoring position. After producing a lofty .318 average his rookie season in 2015, his average in that split dipped from .263 in 2016 to .237 in 2017. Last season, his average came back up (.273), but even with the fact that hitting with runners in scoring position has been proved to be a somewhat random stat, many now believe this is part of Bryant's reputation.

"My first year it was great. Second year was OK. Then the third year it got worse," Bryant said. "I don't know if it's a coincidence or what. But I look at other areas, maybe I'm not doing as well in that one, but I'm doing other things to help my team. ... It's easy to nitpick. People go to the thing that you don't do well. That makes headlines and creates controversy."

What's the answer? Of course, it's to ignore the noise. That was a lot easier when all a player had to do was avoid picking up the morning paper or listening to sports talk radio, but nowadays, it's a lot harder to dismiss.

"You have to be careful what you see, what you expose yourself to," Bryant said. "I think I do a great job of that."

Rizzo added: "It's impossible not to hear it, see it. He does a good job of keeping that to himself. He wants to be one of the best ever -- not just really good."

There was a time not long ago when Bryant was considered among the best players in the game, arguably right behind Mike Trout, but his injury-marred 2018 season seems to have changed that. He was not listed as a top-20 player in ESPN.com's preseason rankings.

"Everyone knows that you can be the best ever, then be the goat," Rizzo said. "You have to stay level. Look at what people are saying about [35-year-old Detroit Tigers star] Miguel Cabrera. Where is the respect factor?"

If Rizzo is looking for respect on social media, he isn't going to find it. Instead of fighting it, perhaps Bryant has the right idea: channel it. If the offseason, spring training and first three games are any indication, the former MVP is on the right track.

"I had a lot of work to do just to feel right coming into spring training, and I think I accomplished all that," Bryant said. "It's important to have perspective. I go home and beat myself up, but I always remember that I get to play a game for a living."