There were plenty of headline-grabbing quotes yesterday after reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper met with reporters for the first time at Spring Training. Harper held court in Viera, Florida's Space Coast Stadium, where he talked openly about his role in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse (He's not a leader!) and what the future might hold (Don't sell him short!). He also talked about preparing for the 2016 campaign and the work he has done to help the Nationals as they try to bounce back from a disappointing 2015 season.
"I think last year just definitely was disappointing for us," Harper acknowledged, "but it's something that happens. It's the way that baseball works. But sometimes you've just got to tip your cap to the other teams that were playing well and hopefully that next year you can come back and play the game hard and play it well and that's what we're going to try to do this year."
After the MVP-worthy season he put together last year, which saw him lead the National League in On-Base Percentage (.460 OBP), Slugging Percentage (.649 SLG), Wins Above Replacement (9.5 fWAR), Weighted On-Base Average (.461 wOBA), Weighted Runs Created Plus (198 wRC+), Isolated Power (.319 ISO), Runs Scored (118) and Home Runs (42, tied for first) and finish second in the NL in Walks (124) and Batting Average (.330), it's not too surprising that Harper said he didn't change anything about the way he's preparing for his fifth major league campaign.
"Exact same thing I did last year I did this year," Harper explained. "Stuck with the same routine, stuck with everything I could to just feel good. Feel great coming into Spring. Swing feels awesome. Made no changes with that. Program, routine, everything like that, the same every single day. Took my month off and got right back into it with everything."
There will be a different manager on the bench this time, and Harper talked about getting to know Dusty Baker and the new coaches the Nationals have assembled around the veteran skipper.
"Definitely a guy that you want to play for," Harper said. "Players' manager for sure. He just wants you to work hard and do everything right and he understands the game. I think that's the biggest thing. He understands the mentality, he understands the grind of playing every single day and there's nothing better than having a manager who understands the game of baseball."
Baker was asked yesterday if he thought there was room for improvement for the 23-year-old outfielder?
"You can always improve," the 66-year-old skipper and former major leaguer said.
"Did he get Gold? How many bases did he steal? He's excited to be here with Davey Lopes. I can help teach him and Davey -- outfield, throwing with accuracy, learn how to pace yourself."
"I think Davey is going to be a huge help for everybody on this team," Harper said of getting a chance to learn from and work with the Nationals' new first base coach.
"If he kind of taps me on the shoulder and says, 'Go,' we'll see what happens from there," Harper continued. "If I'm hitting doubles and worrying about just trying to score -- I know I can score from first, but scoring from second is definitely a lot easier. So, I wouldn't mind stealing a few bags this year, but just trying to get on base first and do everything I can to just help this team win and if my on-base percentage is high then we'll be scoring a lot of runs."
"But just looking forward to learning from him every single day, I think it's huge. He's a guy that has helped a lot of players get better at that aspect, so when we signed him I was thrilled. Texted [Jayson Werth] and said, 'Hey, I can't wait to work with this guy.' Definitely high praise from J-Dub about him."
"There's always stuff you can improve on," Baker said. "I'm going to talk to him about being patient and not allowing them to frustrate you, because they're going to try to frustrate you. And I saw Barry Bonds, man.
"He was the best at not getting frustrated. What did he walk two hundred times or something? ? Ooof, man. Every time they walk you it actually helps your batting average. If you're a .300 hitter you've got a 70% change to make an out. So, and then Barry was patient. You couldn't lull him to sleep and then he'd get one pitch to hit and it would be adios. And it's not as important who's hitting behind Bryce, but... it's as important as who hits in front of him, because it doesn't matter who's hitting behind unless it's Mike Trout or the kid up there in Detroit, [Miguel Cabrera]. Unless it's one of those guys, and you don't have the money to pay for all of them, then you try to clog up the bases where they can't walk [you] unless they walk in a run, so it's really important who we get on in front of Bryce."
Harper, asked about protection in the lineup, said that just like last season, he would take what pitchers gave him and take the free passes if that's what opposing teams choose to do.
"If I walk, I walk, I'm on base," he said. "And that's all that matters. I know what I can do in those situations. I know what players and other guys on my team can do and I look forward to just playing every single day, not worrying about protection, not worrying about anything I can't control. Just worrying about what I can control and just playing the game hard, playing it well, having good at bats and doing things I can do to help win ballgames."
Baker was asked if he wants Harper to be willing to take the walks like Bonds did when he didn't get anything to hit?
"He ain't going to have no choice sometimes, most of the time, you know. I'd rather he didn't walk, but I don't want him to go out of the zone too far. I believe you've got to go out of the zone sometimes, because every ball that he's hit hasn't been -- I watched him on TV -- every ball he hit wasn't a strike and the plate is only a strike because you make them come over the plate. I can get up on the plate and move my plate on you. You know what I mean? It's not a strike per se, on the plate, but where I moved up on the plate, it's a strike on my plate. That make sense? Cause when I saw Bryce last year hit a pitch up and in to left field out of the park. Remember that one? That was some Tony Oliva stuff."
Having played alongside greats like Hank Aaron and managed the likes of Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr., Baker was asked what, if anything, the great ones have in common that sets them apart?
"I think the great ones have, no.1, great vision," Baker said. "That's what I think no.1. Outstanding vision. They see things that other people don't see. The second thing, they've got tremendous drive and concentration and never satisfied. I remember asking Sadaharu Oh, 'How do you stay motivated?' when he was an eight-time MVP, they used to train with us, when I was Dodger... and he said, through an interpreter, he wanted the ninth MVP after he had eight. And then he said he was never satisfied until he quit playing and looked back on what he had done. That's pretty deep."