Though he had already started to slow down some (before super-genius Joe Maddon and the Cubs walked him 13 times and hit him once in four games in Chicago) Bryce Harper put together an impressive April last season, finishing the month with a .286/.406/.714 line, six doubles and nine home runs in his first 96 plate appearances, earning an NL Player of the Month nod.
"Before they stopped pitching to Bryce, about the last couple weeks in April, he was kind of struggling a little bit. You know what I mean?” Nats’ skipper Dusty Baker told reporters last May.
"So they're actually doing Bryce a favor. The more pitches he sees he can zero in on what is good and what's not."
It didn’t exactly work out that way.
Whether he was injured (which his agent, Scott Boras, hinted he was this winter) or just unable to make necessary adjustments, Harper struggled from May on, posting a .235/.367/.392 line with 18 doubles and 15 home runs in 124 games and 531 plate appearances between May 1st and the end of the regular season.
Harper is seemingly healthy this season, and off to a strong start.
He went 7 for 10 with three doubles, two home runs and three walks in the Nationals’ series in Atlanta this week, finishing the three-game sweep of the Braves with a .400/.515/.818 line, five doubles and six home runs in 15 games and 68 PAs.
After a 1 for 3 game in which Harper walked and scored a run last night in SunTrust Park, Baker was asked what was different for his right fielder early this season.
“He started out great last year as well,” Baker said. “I think he was the Player of the Month last year in April, now the secret is to keep him strong and keep him healthy.
“The main difference I think is that he’s not missing pitches. He’s not fouling them back.
“Last year, he was fouling back a lot of pitches that ordinarily he would put in play.”
“He’s taking what they give him,” Baker continued.
“He’ll take a single up the middle and he’ll take a double down the left field line and so he’s using the whole field I think is the difference.”
Harper and the Nationals are in New York tonight, where the 24-year-old has hit eight doubles and eight home runs in 40 games and 175 PAs, with a .265/.364/.483 line so far in his career.