Wednesday morning, Nationals Manager Matt Williams called into The Junkies on 106.7 The Fan to fulfill his weekly obligation. The second question he fielded concerned Bryce Harper. After an introduction that covered Harper’s status – 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and a helmet slam Tuesday night, looking lost, hitting .214 without power since he returned from the disabled list – the query came.
“Is it a terrible idea – just a wacky idea – to send him down to Syracuse for a week, just to get him right?” one of the Junkies asked. “Is that just a stupid idea on my part?”
“I don’t know,” Williams answered. “I don’t think it’s stupid. Generally, if you have young players, that’s what you do. But this guy is a special young player. We all know that. It’s different. I think he works hard every day. He’s the first one in the ballpark, generally, to get his day going. He’s grinding. We’re doing everything we can to get a good feel going in there and help him with his confidence and all that. It’s not easy, by any stretch. But I don’t know if it’s a good idea at this point to do that, because it’s completely different pitching. We all know the big difference between Triple A pitching and big league pitching. It’s probably more of an option to have him feel good here, get it back. We’ve seen him, certainly, good and hitting well. For me, it’s not necessarily that he can’t hit, of course. It is that he’s in some kind of a slump. What we have to do is try to work our way through it and get him out of it as quickly as possible. He grinds every day, you guys. He’s doing everything we can to get out of it, and so are we.”
Later in the afternoon, during his daily news conference, the subject surfaced again. Asked if sending Harper to the minors was even in the realm of possibility, Williams grew testy and faulted reporters for misinterpreting his comments on the radio.
“I would caution everybody in this room: The minute you think you can read my freakin’ mind, you’re sorely mistaken,” Williams said. “It [ticks] me off to even think about that somebody would take a comment I make on the radio and infer that I’m thinking one way or the other. I’ve had it. Don’t do it anymore. Bryce Harper is one of the guys on our team. He’s an important part of our team, just like everybody else is. It’s not fair to the kid. It’s not fair to the rest of the guys in that clubhouse to even think about sending Bryce Harper to the minor leagues, or to cause a stir. It’s unacceptable. It won’t happen. Is that good enough for you?”
Translation: I got asked a question at 8:15 a.m. after a frustrating loss. I should have just said, ‘No offense, but yeah, that is kind of stupid.’ Instead I answered it in a manner that prompted a reaction I didn’t want or expect. Now I’m going to make sure that Bryce Harper knows I’ve got his back while killing this story line.
A first-year manager handled a sensitive question awkwardly. That’s happened before. But consider where we’re at with Harper: A radio host for one of the city’s most popular shows raises the idea of sending him to the minors, and the manager, rather than dismissing it out of hand, considers it a reasonable recourse that won’t happen in Harper’s particular case. Maybe Williams only wished not to offend the questioner. But, again, we’re at a place where the Nationals’ manager, albeit in an understandably groggy state, chose to classify sending Harper to the minors as something other than categorically insane.
How did that happen? How did one of the most dynamic in players in baseball become, even if it turns out to be a fleeting stretch that will soon pass, a slumping hitter clinging to his No. 6 spot in the Nationals’ batting order?
For the first 25 games of 2013, Harper may have been the most destructive hitter and best player in the majors. He batted .356, reached base at a .437 clip and slugged .744. He struck out 15 times in 103 plate appearances, drew 13 walks and slammed nine home runs. He hit everything, and he hit it hard, with a uniquely powerful lash.
In the 27th game of 2013, playing right field for the first time in the majors, Harper leaped into the wall at Turner Field and bruised his midsection. He left the next night’s game after a painful check swing. Two weeks later, Harper collided with the Dodger Stadium fence, bloodying his face and battering his knee. The scar healed. The knee developed bursitis.
Looking back, Harper knows he should have had surgery right then. Instead, he dragged his knee through the season, missing one month on the disabled list but never fully healing. He changed his swing to accommodate the pain – he needed to open his front side sooner, which left him defenseless to pitches on the outside corner, particularly from left-handed pitchers. He had always hit lefties well – remember the bullet homer to left off Jonny Venters his rookie season? In 2013, he hit .214 against lefties. The knee changed him as a hitter that season. And he still hit 20 homers.
Harper underwent knee surgery in November, which pushed back his offseason routine. He started swinging a month later than usual, and it was not a usual offseason. He needed to not only gear up for the season, but also to undo the bad habits formed while playing through a knee injury. He scuffled in spring training. He batted sixth in the lineup, an attempt to decrease pressure that may have actually caused him to place more on himself. After the sixth game of the season, Harper declared himself “lost.”
He only needed time to find his swing. In the eighth game of 2014, he clobbered a home run to the upper deck. A weight had been lifted. In the next 16 games, a span of 65 plate appearances, Harper hit .345/.415/.534 as he swallowed getting benched for not running out a groundball. Slowly, after countless hours of work, the player from April 2013 started to reemerged.
In that 16th game, Harper slid headfirst into third base and tore a ligament in his left thumb, which had been partially attached since high school. The timing he had found? Gone.
He went on the disabled list for two months, and when he came back, he had a new injury that affected his swing. A separate, disquieting notion had taken root, a sense that he was trying to find something that he had lost. “It was like old Bryce right there,” hitting coach Rick Schu said after one batting practice session. “Good to see.”
Hand injuries are hell on hitters – Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos both suffered power drains when they returned this season. Without full strength in his hand, Harper can make the same swing he always and receive different feedback. You can see why he spiked his helmet at first base after the flyout to the track last night, where the frustration comes from. For so long, the swing he put on that ball would be enough to drive it out of the park. With a left thumb three months removed surgery, it died at the track.
Harper keeps changing his stance and tweaking his swing, but what Harper’s looking for may not be discovered until his thumb strengthens. It is a physical issue that led to shaken confidence that led to mechanical issues.
“I would not discount the fact that he had an injury to his top hand,” Williams said on 106.7 The Fan. “If you don’t feel strong or if you feel something is wrong with your hand, that can affect you. Him coming back from an injury is not easy. If we have a little bit of patience, put in some good hard work, hopefully he gets hot here and he can carry us a little bit, too.”
Behind the scenes, Harper has handled his slump with his head up. Last year, playing through bursitis in his knee and forced to restrict his pregame batting work, he was miserable. This season, he arrives daily at Nationals Park in an upbeat mood. He puts in a full day’s work in the batting cage. He shows frustration in the games – he shattered a bat this weekend after a strikeout – but he seems to use those tantrums to get his anger out and move on.
In late April 2013, Harper was conquering worlds. Over the past 15 months, he has undergone surgery twice to repair injuries that forced him to change the swing he had honed his entire life. He is two months shy of his 22nd birthday. Tuesday night, Javier Baez made his major league debut for the Chicago Cubs, and for the first time since Harper made his debut in April 2012, a player younger than Harper appeared in a National League game.
Before he finished his radio appearance, Williams told the hosts, “He’ll be fine, you guys.”