The markings of Bryce Harper’s progress in center field all seem to be obvious, all subtle as a punch in the mouth. He dives headlong and crashes into walls and chases down balls over his head like a wide receiver. He throws with a rocket launcher affixed to his right shoulder. There seem to be no secrets.
Manager Davey Johnson can see one of the secrets, though. Harper, to his eye, is running differently, better. “Maybe it’s just what I’m hoping I’m seeing,” Johnson said. But he is pretty certain Harper’s gait has evolved in his new position in such a way that will make him more durable and could allow him to stay in center, rather than a corner spot, longer.
“He’s actually gliding more,” Johnson said. “His strides have become more glides instead of chop. I’ve seen him get better in that regard. Early on, it was chop-chop-chop-chop, as quick as he could put them up, like pistons. Now he’s got a little more glide. I commented to him, I said, ‘I like the way you’re running better.’ That’s a positive.”
How much difference can the force of Harper’s strides make? When he coached outfielders for the Marlins, Nationals third base coach Bo Porter instructed Giancarlo Stanton (then called Mike). The Marlins planned to make Stanton, a defensive end in spikes, a center fielder. “But he was such a choppy, maximum-effort runner that he broke down,” Johnson said. “So they moved him to right.”
A center field has to run on every fly ball, either to chase it down and catch it himself or to back up the play. Porter worried Harper’s muscled frame, combined with his chopping strides, would add up.
“I know Bo Porter was really concerned early on about wearing him down, maybe have a leg injury,” Johnson said. “But he’s not as concerned now.”