In mid-August last season, when Bryce Harper had turned things around and was hitting like the Bryce Harper that Washington Nationals fans, and baseball fans in general, had come to know, Nationals’ hitting coach Kevin Long talked to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal about what the then-25-year-old outfielder had done to get back on track after a rough first half.
Harper put up a .214/.365/.468 line with 14 doubles, 23 home runs, 78 walks, and 102 Ks in 94 games and 414 plate appearances before the All-Star Break.
Twenty-four games into the second-half, when Long spoke to Rosenthal, Harper had put up a .337/.440/.675 line, seven doubles, seven home runs, 13 walks and 28 Ks in 100 PAs.
“In the end, all that stuff that happened to him will make him better,” Long said. “He learned more about himself. He learned his value.
“His value is not in trying to hit home runs. His value is putting together good at-bats and hitting line drives, and some of those line drives will end up home runs. He really thought he could elevate his game by hitting more home runs. He has hit 40, and he thought he could elevate to 55 to 60. He found that wasn’t the case — the hard way.”
Harper ended up posting a .300/.434/.538 line with 20 doubles, 11 homers, 52 walks, and 67 Ks in 281 PAs to finish the season with a .249/.393/.496 line in 695 PAs total, over which he was worth 3.5 fWAR.
Long was asked at Winterfest in early December what he was most proud of in terms of the work he and Harper did to fix what wasn’t working for the outfielder.
“I would say I’m proud of the fact that he turned it around,” Long said. “Listen, it’s different when you start off and you’re .350 and then you kind of come back down to earth and you end up at .280. But when your numbers say .209 at the All-Star Break, and you end up hitting .250, do you know what he had to do to do that? It’s pretty phenomenal. And he didn’t do it with hitting home runs. He did it by basically getting back to his roots. And his roots were, he’s always been a line drive hitter with home run power.
“He was kind of doing it the opposite, and he had talked about how he had worked on that in the offseason, and you go into the season, you give it a shot, and it didn’t work, so he was able to make some adjustments, and I was proud of the fact that he was able to turn it around.”
Harper’s line drive percentage went from 20.9% in the first-half of the 2018 campaign to a 24.2% LD% after the All-Star Break. His Pull% (% of batted balls hit to the pull field) went up from 44.6% to 39% while his Oppo% (% of batted balls hit to the opposite field) went from 26.5% to 31.5%, and his BABIP (Batting AVG on Balls in Play), which Long had pointed to as one of the big factors in his first-half struggles jumped from .226 in the first-half to .378 in the second.
“When I think about it,” Long explained in an MLB Network Radio interview with hosts Jim Duquette and Mike Ferrin on Tuesday, “I really believe that he, me, his father, everybody involved kind of got caught up in the launch angle stuff, and he was literally trying to hit the ball in the air way too much, and we started simplifying. We started calling them ‘Boring Line Drives’.
“‘Let’s go do some BLD work,’ we’d say, and it was the most boring cage work you’ve ever seen, but it translated, it translated into the game, and basically he went back to what he was and what he was doing prior to trying to lift the ball. And sometimes you try things to see if there is a better method. In this case it wasn’t, and I think Bryce is going to be better for it. I think he’s better for it moving forward.
“And he even says that,” Long continued. “‘I know and I became a better hitter this year despite all the struggles.’”
Was making the changes Harper did, in-season, a difficult task? Even for a hitter who is as talented as the 2010 No. 1 overall pick?
“We went more to not mechanical stuff, to just external cues as far as hitting the ball to this spot or trying to hit this target, and that kind of put him in place, but it took a little bit,” Long said.
“But honestly at the end of the day it’s something he’d done before, so it wasn’t a whole lot of work getting back to that, and you’re right, the second half, and literally from the All-Star Break on, he was the Bryce Harper that we’ve seen in the past.”
Long said that while he hasn’t talked to Harper much now that the now-26-year-old has hit the free agent market, he has spoken to him, and, “... he’s not worried about the process.”
“I’m sure he would like to get this over with. Certainly it’s taken longer than maybe he wanted to.”
Looking back on their time working together, Long said, when asked what Harper was like in a professional setting, he came away thinking the outfielder is determined to be great.
“He gets after it. He loves to talk baseball. He loves to talk about the game. He loves to talk about ways to get better, things that he’s doing, things that he needs to do, ways to attack certain pitchers, game plans. He wants to be great and I love that about him. He comes ready to work and go about his craft every day, and that’s half the battle. So he was a lot of fun. Not only just what you’ve got in the athlete, but the other side, the personal side, I got to know him as a friend and build a relationship with him, and that was the fun part.”