When Bryce Harper began this year with seven hits in his first 31 at-bats, he shrugged it off. He knew he had plenty of time to ditch his slump, and he could draw on his recent history when beginning a new level for proof.
Last year, after Harper had three hits in his first 18 at-bats at the College of Southern Nevada, Harper briefly considered going home and ending his early GED experiment. By the end of the season, he was batting .439 and had shattered the school home run record by 19 homers. At major league spring training this year, Harper did not collect his first hit until his fifth at-bat and struggled, but was hitting .389 before he moved down to minor league camp.
The same pattern has emerged at Class A Hagerstown, where Harper has been laying waste to the South Atlantic League for the second half of April. On the season, Harper is batting .323 with a .425 on-base percentage. His .645 slugging percentage ranks fourth in the Sally League, and his 1.070 OPS is fifth.
He’s done most of the damage recently. In his past 10 games, starting April 17, Harper has gone 13 for 31 with six walks, four home runs and four doubles, which works out to a .419/.514/.935 slash line. He’s also got three stolen bases for good measure during the streak.
“He’s just really relaxed,” Hagerstown Manager Brian Daubach said today in a phone interview. “It was tough at the beginning of the year. There was a lot of pressure on him, a lot of media attention. That’s died down a little bit. It’s fun to watch right now. You can just tell he’s really relaxed.”
Harper’s streak has coincided roughly with the time he traveled to Washington to receive an eye exam, Daubach said. He wasn’t sure exactly what Harper had changed, but the eye-popping results followed.
“He had some problems,” Daubach said. “Whatever happened, that’s something, too, that was maybe in the back of his mind – check that problem off the list. Since he went and got his eyes checked, he’s swung much better.”
In fact, Harper got contact lenses after that eye exam.
Harper’s hot streak hasn’t been without incident. Against Class A West Virginia in Charleston, Harper found himself in the middle of a benches-clearing rhubarb. He struck out looking and, Daubach said, the opposing pitcher barked at him walking off the field. When Harper responded, players poured out of the dugouts.
Harper has long dealt with heckling from fans and taunting from opponents. After a brief respite during spring training, when he played with and against major leaguers, Harper has again confronted some mouthy opposition.
“He didn’t say anything,” Daubach said. “The kid said something to him. They’re pitching him like it’s the seventh game of the World Series. Everybody is really coming after him.
“Some of these kids, it’ll be the highlight of their career. You hate to say it, but it’s true. An 18-year-old kid was excited about striking out Bryce Harper. That’s all it was.”
If Harper continues his recent performance, those South Atlantic League pitchers won’t have Bryce Harper around to try and strike out for much longer.