Pitchers are taking notice of Bryce Harper. It’s hard not to, as the Nationals outfielder leads Washington in every major hitting category. He has 10 home runs, 21 RBIs and is the only player on the team with a batting average over .300 (.302).
Harper has been carrying one of the worst offenses in baseball. The Nats entered Thursday ranked 27th in runs scored (116) and 28th in batting average (.232), and opposing teams are adjusting to Washington’s No. 3 hitter.
Afraid of his power, pitchers have thrown Harper the fourth-fewest percent of fastballs in the league, according to Fangraphs.com. Lately, they also have been throwing him inside more. At 20 years old, Harper’s already become one of the most feared hitters in baseball.
Harper’s seeing more breaking balls, something he struggled with early in his young career. But against Detroit on Wednesday, the left-handed hitter received a first-pitch curveball during his fifth-inning plate appearance and took it to deep right-center field for his 10th home run of the year.
Manager Davey Johnson believes Harper is exhibiting more patience at the plate, which has contributed to the hot start. It’s not that Harper’s more patient in pitch selection, though. It’s that he’s more mindful of balls entering his specific hitting zone.
“He is an aggressive hitter, and he is looking to swing the bat,” Johnson said. “They’re not going to give him a whole lot of stuff down the middle. He learned from that last year. Sometimes, if he doesn’t get a hit the day before, he’ll be a little more overly aggressive. But he knows that.”
Though Johnson sees Harper as a more patient hitter this year, first baseman Adam LaRoche hasn’t seen much of a difference.
“If he can get the bat on it, he’s swinging,” LaRoche said. “He’s one of those guys that can hit pitches off the zone, off the plate and up above the strike zone. He’s so aggressive and has a knack for hitting so many pitcher’s pitches. I don’t think we’ll see that change.”
Harper took the MLB by storm in 2012 and has furthered his success in 2013, even when Washington’s offense was slumping in April. Harper said his approach is the same, even though it’s obvious he’ll be pitched around. Chalk it up to a phenom getting better with experience.
“I’m just trying to square balls up and do things the right way and have good [at-bats],” Harper said. “I don’t know if it’s changed from last year or not. I’m just trying to have good [at-bats].”