Bryce Harper walked 38 times in 131 plate appearances in March/April, the second-highest total in March/April in MLB history, behind only Barry Bonds, who walked 39 times over the first month-plus back in ‘04 on the way to an MLB record 232-walk season.
Harper walked 15 times total over the next 183 PAs, however, which left him tied for the NL lead going into Thursday night’s series finale with the Baltimore Orioles (and he still led all NL hitters in home runs, with 19, though he’d hit just one in 67 PAs in June).
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies in his weekly interview on Wednesday, that Washington’s 2010 No. 1 overall pick needed to get back to connecting with the pitches he actually gets to hit on a nightly basis, instead of fouling them off.
“It’s all about getting the right pitch to hit, getting ahead in the count, which he’s so good at,” the General Manager explained. “He still leads the league in walks, and that shows that he still has command of the strike zone, but when he gets his pitch to hit and he launches the bat head, he has to square it up instead of fouling it back.
“Once you see him starting to square up a few balls on hitter’s counts, then you’ll know he’s starting to get it rolling.”
Davey Martinez had said previously that his outfielder got frustrated in the first month-plus, and started to go out of the zone, which Harper admitted has been an issue when he spoke with veteran Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga before the series finale against the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday.
“The past couple weeks, I’ve just chased out of the zone a little too much,” Harper said.
“The biggest thing I see in myself is really just swinging at pitcher’s pitches. There’s times where I’m on the corner, and a strike is called, and then I chase something else and dig my own hole. I’ve got to work to get my pitches to hit.”
“I should take my walks and get on first base,” Harper added. “But it’s harder. It’s definitely harder.”
Martinez moved Harper to the leadoff spot in the third of three with the Orioles in another attempt to get things back on track for the 25-year-old slugger.
“My thinking is, by hopefully putting him up top, he’ll start taking his walks again and we’ll get him going,” Martinez told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Byron Kerr.
“I sat around here last night [till the] wee hours trying to contemplate what to do. I like the lineup today. I really do.”
His advice for his right fielder?
“The thing I tell Bryce is just to keep it simple,” Martinez said. “Keep it very simple, and to take his walks. He went through this before, and the biggest thing is that he was walking.
“Now he’s not taking his walks. When he gets the ball in the strike zone like he did yesterday — hit the ball to first 107 mph. So when he gets the ball in the strike zone, he typically hits it pretty hard. So we’ve got to get him in the strike zone, when he does that he’s dangerous.”
Harper worked a nine-pitch walk out of Kevin Gausman in the first at bat of the finale of the three-game set with the Nationals’ regional rivals, spitting on a 2-2 splitter, and fouling two off before taking ball four.
He hit a sac fly on a 2-2 fastball in his second trip to the plate in the third, and took a seven-pitch walk in the fifth, after falling behind 0-2 to Gausman.
Going up against Orioles’ right-hander Mychal Givens in the first at bat of the eighth, Harper hit a 98 mph 2-2 fastball to right for a leadoff double, his 8th of 2018, after he fouled off two two-strike pitches. 1 for 1 , 2 BB.
He scored the go-ahead run on Juan Soto’s one-out, two-run double to left-center field and the Nationals took two of three from the O’s with a 4-2 win.
“His at bats were really good today, really good,” Martinez told reporters after the game, “so I’ve got a lot to think about tonight.”
Will the manager keep Harper atop the order in Friday’s series opener with Philadelphia’s Phillies?
“Yeah, I’m thinking about it,” Martinez said.
“He looked really good today. That’s kind of what I wanted to see. Just him taking pitches, working counts. He had a [nine]-pitch at bat that first at bat, so that was awesome, and he worked a walk, so I’ll sit down right now and I’ll start figuring out tomorrow.”
Harper told MASN’s Ray Knight he was happy to contribute to a win after a rough stretch at the plate.
“I’ve chased a lot of pitcher’s pitches in the last couple weeks, and it’s hurt me,” Harper said.
“I need to take my walks, and keep going, and when I’m doing that, I’m one of the best in baseball, and this team needs me to do that each night, and it was a lot of fun going out there tonight and getting on base for my guys and driving in a run of course, and winning a ballgame. You always want to get out there and do the things you can to help your team win, and I was able to do that tonight.”