If you’re desperately searching for positive signs from Bryce Harper at the plate, you might have seen some things you liked from the Washington Nationals’ 23-year-old defending NL MVP on Wednesday.
In what ended up an 8-3 win over in Chase Field, Harper went 1 for 5, with a ground-rule double (his 13th), but his outs were well-struck too, with a fly to deep center in the third, a lineout to center in the fifth and an absolutely scorched lineout to left in the sixth inning before he popped out to short in his final at bat.
Dusty Baker told reporters after the game that he was happy to see Harper squaring up some pitches he’d popped up in recent weeks.
“Oh, yeah man. He had three quality at bats,” Baker said. “He hit the ball hard, on the line. He only popped up once. He’d been popping up a lot.”
“He got a big walk for us in front of [Daniel] Murphy, so yeah, I was very pleased.
“He and Ben [Revere], seems like they’ve been our tough luck guys, but you’ve got to keep swinging and sooner or later Harper is going to really bust out of this.”
The walk in front of Murphy that Baker referred to was actually in Monday night’s game, which saw Harper go 1 for 4 with two walks and three runs scored.
Harper walked and scored as part of a four-run first, singled and scored the second time up and walked again with one out in the fifth before coming around on an RBI double by Murphy that made it a 9-1 game at the time.
Overall on the nine-game, three-city road trip through Cleveland, San Francisco and Arizona, Harper went 4 for 30 (.133/.297/.200) with two doubles, seven walks and eighth Ks, leaving him at .234/.378/.443 overall on the year with the 13 doubles, 20 home runs, 82 walks (16 intentional) and 75 Ks in 442 PAs.
Bryce Harper vs pitches in the zone:— Daren Willman (@darenw) August 4, 2016
One person who isn’t concerned about Harper’s struggles (though he may or may not have told one of the dump trucks full of cash to pull away from Nationals Park) is GM Mike Rizzo, who explained his thoughts on the struggling outfielder when he was on MLB Network Radio earlier this week.
Rizzo was asked what he saw from Harper and what the 2010 No. 1 overall pick needed to improve upon at the plate?
“All I can see is — just put him in the three-hole in the lineup and let him be,” Rizzo said.
“We’ve got some things that we have to worry about on this ballclub and Bryce Harper ain’t one of them.
“Pencil him in the lineup in three or four-hole, wherever you want to put him and let it roll. We’ll let Bryce and the hitting coaches figure out what tweaks have to happen, but to me, hitters hit and producers produce. He’s a hitter, he’s a producer and I would take him at the plate in a game situation any day of the week. I don’t care what his batting average says, I don’t care what the situation is.
“When Harp’s up there in a game-changing situation I’m very comfortable and I’m always waiting for him to break loose.
“And I just think all it takes a broken-bat hit or the next at bat to me is the start of a streak, and Harp is one of the best players in the game and I think that he’s capable of carrying us for a long time like he did last year and like he did early this year.”
Harper did get off to a good start this season, with a .286/.406/.714 line, six doubles, nine home runs, 17 walks and 13 Ks in 23 games and 96 PAs in April, but followed up with a .200/.422/.363 May in which he hit a double and four home runs with 31 walks and 26 Ks in 28 games and 116 PAs.
Rizzo talked about the affect the series with the Chicago Cubs had on Harper, after Joe Maddon’s team walked him 13 times in 19 plate appearances in the four-game set in Wrigley Field. Harper did struggle in the week or two before that series, but Rizzo said there were some signs that he was affected by the approach the Cubs took.
“I think it frustrated him a little bit... I really do,” Rizzo said.
“I think that he was looking to do some damage like he always does and I thought that in his excitement and trying to carry the team and help the team that he went out of his comfort zone and went out of the strike zone like he didn’t all of last year, and you know how things snowball and they spiral, and they spiraled down a little bit for him and they started pitching to him a little bit, but he rarely gets more than one or two pitchers per at bat to really attack and you get into a bad rhythm where you’re fouling off the pitch that you’re get to hit when you’re going bad and you center it up when you’re going good, so like I said, he’s one at bat from starting a streak and getting hot and carrying us and we keep running him out because he’s the best in the game and when he does start hitting somebody is going to pay and it will be a good day for the Nats’ lineup when he does.”
Will the stretch run and the pressure of the division race (such as it is) and the promise of another run at the postseason focus Harper?