Bryce Harper’s return to the Nationals – which he said will not happen until his left hand is “100 percent or close to 100 percent” – will present a delicate question. With Ryan Zimmerman playing left field, where will everyone play? Harper does not know how he will fit in. But he said he wants to play center field, the position he played most in his rookie season, and the spot currently occupied by Denard Span.
“I’m not sure,” Harper said when asked how he sees himself fitting in. “Zim’s pretty good in left right now. I think [Anthony] Rendon is a hell of a third baseman. [Danny] Espinosa, he’s a hell of a second baseman. I really have no idea what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it. I think everyone knows I love center field. That’s where I like to be. My numbers are a lot better in center field. I feel good there. But you know, of course we have Denard Span, who’s one of the best center fielders in the game, if not the best.”
He’s right that his offensive numbers are better when he plays center, and it’s telling that Harper knows. Harper can play with more freedom in center field, where he’s engaged on more plays and a larger part of the game. In the corners, he needs to worry about more walls. For a player without much outfield experience – remember, he was a catcher until the Nationals drafted him in 2010 – center field has been easiest for Harper to learn.
Here are Harper’s career offensive numbers by outfield position:
Center: 418 PA, .291 AVG, .360 OBP, .501 SLG, .861OPS
Left: 496 PA, .277 AVG, .355 OBP, .476 SLG, .831 OPS
Right: 266 PA, .236 AVG, .333 OBP, .437 SLG, .770 OPS
Harper plays his best defense in center, too. The Nationals’ internal defensive metrics and those available publicly ranked Harper among the best defensive center fielders in baseball in 2012. In his career, Harper has been a bit below league in left field and slightly above average in right, according to FanGraphs.com’s advanced fielding stats.
Though Harper feels most comfortable in center field, he may be stuck in left. Manager Matt Williams said his “initial” plan is to move Zimmerman back to third and play Harper in left once Harper comes back. That would mean putting Rendon back to second and putting Espinosa on the bench.
For Harper to play center, Span would need to sit. Span is by far the Nationals’ best defensive outfielder, and since May 20 he’s batting .400 with a .995 OPS.
Of course, the Nationals’ decision can only come once Harper finishes his recovery from surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb. Harper has been playing catch and swinging a bat with his right hand. But he still can’t squeeze a ball with his glove or grip a bat with his left hand. Williams suggested Harper could return by July 1, but Harper said he will take as much as needed, with no eyes on a timetable.
“I’m not even going to say anything about that,” Harper said. “People are saying the first of July or end of June. Me and Dr. [Thomas] Graham have what we want to do. If that’s 20 days after that or 20 days before that, it’s something, if I feel good, I’m going to play. If I don’t, then I’m going to keep going. If it takes me a month after the all-star break, it’s going to take me that long. I’m not going to rush back. I’m not going to do anything stupid. I just want to see how I feel and see how I feel.”
You may expect Harper is dying to get back, but Harper said that’s not the case.
“I don’t really have that itching feeling of, ‘I want to come back this quick,’ ” Harper said. “Of course, I want to play. It [stinks] having to sit inside the dugout, watch my team play without me out there. But things haven’t been too bad.”
Harper said he wants to take his time because of how important his hand is to baseball.
“It’s my hand. I need this to play every single day,” Harper said. “It’s what I need to hit and to catch a ball and do certain things. My top hand is huge in my swing. I think a lot of people know that. I’m just going to take as much time as I can to get this thing healed. The vibration of the bat is going to be a big test for me also. I’m going to take as much as I need to be 100 percent, or close to 100 percent, when I come back so I can help this team win.”
When Harper does back, he wants to play center. But he also said he’s willing to play any position – even his old one.
“I’ll play anywhere they want me,” Harper said. “Maybe I can get some throws behind the dish and give [Wilson] Ramos some time off.”
He was joking, of course, but there’s probably some truth in that joke.