Dusty Baker talked early this Spring about getting to know Bryce Harper in their first year together after the veteran skipper was hired by the Washington Nationals.
It was a down year for Harper. Coming off an NL MVP-worthy season in 2015 which saw him post a .330/.460/.649 line, 38 doubles, 42 HRs and 197 wRC+ over 153 games and 654 plate appearances in a 9.5 fWAR campaign, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick put up a .243/.373/.441 line, 24 doubles, 24 HRs and 112 wRC+ over 147 games and 627 PAs in a 3.5 fWAR season.
Was he injured as many suspected?
Harper would never use an injury as an excuse, though his agent, Scott Boras, did tell reporters this winter that his client, “... had an issue that he played through with, that he battled with — that was certainly uncomfortable but still allowed him to play.”
Baker was asked this Spring if he ever considered sitting Harper for a stretch and if Harper lobbied to stay in the lineup when he was struggling.
“There were times [I wanted to rest him],” Baker said, “but that’s what communication is about. There are always times — and I like guys to lobby to stay in the lineup, that means that they want to play, but the ultimate decision is mine. I have to do what’s best for the player and team at the same time.
“I’d say, ‘Hey, man, how are you feeling?’ I could see him slowing down... and there are some times I didn’t have to lobby at all, cause I’d say, ‘Okay, man, we’ve got 15 days in a row, I’m going to try to give you Sunday off,’ and he’d say, ‘I’ll be ready to win the game late in the game.’”
“Your horses come to play and that’s why they’re horses.”
Harper stayed in the lineup, contributed to the Nationals’ NL East title and though he had something of a down year, as he told reporters, including CSN’s Chase Hughes, “I'll take 24 homers and 86 RBI for a down year. I'll take that any day of the week.”
“He has confidence. The one thing that Bryce is not lacking, is confidence,” Baker joked this winter.
“Sometimes I think people can misconstrue that as arrogance, which it's not. He's a fine young man and I enjoy being around him. He's very respectful.”
Baker talked more about his relationship with Harper this Spring.
“I haven’t had any trouble with Bryce,” he said. “He’s very easy to get along with and he’s very respectful. He’s very respectful of authority, he’s very respectful of the guys who’ve preceded him, and he’s probably as knowledgable of baseball history as anybody that I have out there and that really kind of surprised me at his young age.”
Though they’ve only been working together for a year, Baker has a lot of respect for Harper.
“I didn’t know him,” he said.
“When you’re around a person every day you get to know him. You get to see some growth. I’m sure there was some apprehension on the players’ end, that didn’t know me, but I came here with a certain reputation and certain guys had talked about preseason before I got here and like I said, I liked him from the beginning.
“He’s a pretty cool little dude. He’s pretty hip on a lot of fronts. He listens to his variety of music and how he dresses. He’s not afraid to be Bryce. I think he knows himself probably better than most -year-olds do. I enjoy being around him.
“What you see is what you get. You don’t any fakeness out of Bryce and he’s easy to deal with.”
Harper came to Spring Training this season determined to bounce back, and though he wasn’t sharing any details on what he was dealing with last season, he said that he was aware of what led to his struggles.
“I know exactly why,” Harper said.
“But that’s all last year and that’s what you go through and you build and you grow and you try to maintain and that’s what I’m going to try to do again this year.”
He got off to a strong start in Grapefruit League action, posting a .310/.423/.793 line, four doubles, eight home runs, 10 walks and 10 Ks in 24 games, and yesterday started his 2017 campaign strong as well, going 1 for 3 with a home run and a walk.
Harper’s homer off Miami Marlins’ reliever David Phelps got the Nationals on the board, down 2-1, after starter Edinson Volquez held them scoreless through five.
Baker said afterwards it was a big blast that got the Nats going before Adam Lind hit a two-run homer in the seventh to put them ahead for good in what ended up a 4-2 win.
“[Harper] was the guy that was locked in first in Spring Training and I had to kind of slow him down a little bit so he wouldn’t get stale and people were wondering, ‘Hey, man should he save some?’ and I said, ‘No, man, you’ve got to perfect that,’ and just let him keep on coming. I think he got a little anxious early in the game when he had runners out there on first and second, but he was very, very patient, cause Phelps has been tough on him in his career, he doesn’t have that many at bats, but he had been tough on him. The main thing is that he got us on the board, and that was big for us to make it a 2-1 ballgame.”
It was Harper’s fifth Opening Day home run in five season openers (two in 2013 and one each in 2015-16-17).
“It’s fun to be able to come into Nats Park and try to win ballgames for us and do the things we can as a team to make those fans happy out there,” Harper told reporters after the win.
After five innings of missed opportunities, Harper’s blast (which traveled 403 feet to right) got the ball rolling for the Nationals and they didn’t slow down until they won the season opener.