For the most part, pitchers are “doing the same thing they did in high school and college and little league,” Harper said. “Curveballs and change-ups and fastballs on the inside half on the hands; fastballs away, trying to get me to chase. . . . I just got to learn and bear with it.”
What was encouraging about his bad day against the Yankees, though, was that Harper didn’t take his problems at the plate into the field. He played well in center and right and made a nifty catch on a sinking line drive late in the game.
Harper’s ability to focus “will help him break out of [slumps] because no one is going to work harder than Bryce,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said recently. “Really, nothing has happened with Bryce that we haven’t expected. These are big league pitchers he’s facing. There’s a reason it’s hard to get here and stay here.”
There’s no template for developing players as young as Harper in the big leagues because most 19-year-olds in baseball work in the low levels of the minors. But Johnson is more qualified than most managers to raise Harper correctly.
During Johnson’s first stint managing in the majors with the New York Mets, pitcher Dwight Gooden was a 19-year-old phenom. Some Mets officials were actually worried that Gooden was striking out too many batters (his 276 strikeouts in 1984 are the most for a rookie in big league history).
They figured it would be better for him to throw fewer pitches in an attempt to reduce the strain on his arm, so one official suggested that the team should tinker with Gooden’s mechanics “to hit more bats” and get easier outs from popups and grounders, Johnson recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘What? You want him to do what?’ It doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to let [players] find out who they are.”
Johnson prevented anyone from messing with Gooden’s delivery. In his second season, Gooden won the National League Cy Young Award and earned the majors’ pitching triple crown, leading in victories, earned-run average and strikeouts. Drug use derailed what once appeared to be Gooden’s fast-track path to the Hall of Fame. But by all accounts and appearances, Johnson won’t need to worry about a similar self-destruction with the well-grounded Harper.
From a fatigue standpoint, Johnson was worried about Harper playing center field regularly because of the amount of ground center fielders cover. Fortunately for the Nationals, Johnson has been able to use Harper in right, too, which requires less running, because Roger Bernadina has deserved to be in the lineup.
Bernadina is back on the bench because Werth has returned after suffering a broken wrist that sidelined him for nearly three months. Werth also is playing center to help Harper as the National League East leaders begin the final two months of their regular season — the most important stretch since baseball returned to the District. It will also be one in which the Nationals hope Harper quickly learns enough to help himself, which, not coincidentally, could help the club accomplish something unknown to Washington baseball since 1933 — reaching the postseason.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingonpost.com/reid.