After their offensive breakout last night, the news is pretty much all good for the Nationals today. Despite stumbling around a bit and going 4-7 in their last 11 games, the Nationals, at 42-30, have the best record in the National League by a half game over the Dodgers. Tyler Moore, the slugging prospect few people counted on in spring training, hit a three-run, 462-foot homer last night, the ninth-longest in the majors this year, according to Hit Tracker. Down in the minors, John Lannan has allowed one earned run in five of six starts.
The most unsettling trend is something the Nationals have previously not had to worry about much: Bryce Harper has not been hitting. Over the past 11 games, a stretch that began after his demolition of Boston and Toronto, Harper is batting .186/.255/.233 in 47 plate appearance. He has two doubles and no homers, with 14 strikeouts and four walks.
“Harp’s been struggling as bad as I’ve ever seen him struggle,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He’s a gamer, and he’s going harder and harder and harder to try to get out of it.”
Harper’s mini-slump resembles the only other time he struggled in the majors. Over a nine-game stretch from May 9 to May 17, Harper hit .167 and struck out 10 times while drawing only three walks. Then, like now, Harper’s problem was he expanded the strike zone.
When he’s going good, Harper possesses plate discipline well beyond his years. If you remove his nine-game skid in May and his current rough patch, Harper has walked 17 times and struck out 20 times.
“When he first got up here, he was really calm and slow, taking some walks,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said back at the end of May. “And then he started going after pitches that were off the plate, started getting a little antsy with the bat. He was striking out a little bit and he should have been walking instead. He made that adjustment.”
Harper is in the same place now. Recently, Harper has been particularly susceptible to left-handers twirling him junk out of the zone. He has been outstanding against hard-throwing lefties, but soft-tossing southpaws have confounded him. Harper has reached the stage in his rookie season when teams have developed something of a book on him, and now he has to counter.
There’s no reason to believe he won’t. Once he dashed that skid in May, Harper broke out big. He hit .360 with a 1.065 OPS over his next 23 games. One of Harper’s most impressive qualities, especially for his age, is his ability to diagnose his swing and make quick adjustments. He did it once before, and he’s surely talented enough to do it again.
But his current slide has affected the overall statistical picture of his season – and maybe his candidacy for the All-Star Game. As of this morning, Harper is 0.8 of an at-bat away from qualifying for statistical leaderboards for the first time, so he can be fairly compared to the rest of the league. His 126 OPS+ would tie him for 22nd in the National League. He’s hitting .278/.357/.480, which would rank him 34th/24th/27th in the NL.
Those are good numbers for any player – he leads the Nationals in average and on-base percentage, and trails only Adam LaRoche in slugging and OPS. For a 19-year-old, they are ludicrous.
But given the strength of the outfield position in the National League this year, Harper probably does not belong on the all-star team. Harper ranks 12th among NL outfielders in OPS+, and eight NL outfielders rank above in all three triple-slash categories: Melky Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Matt Holliday, Jason Kubel, Carlos Beltran and Dexter Fowler.
Harper still could make the team. Player voting took place last week, before his recent stretch dimmed his numbers. And if Major League Baseball decides to put him on the Final Vote, he should not waste a second before looking into flights for Kansas City.
But there is a good chance he will not make it. In which case, Harper would have to settle for being the best 19-year-old hitter in about 80 years, if not of all time, which is still not bad.
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