Harper insisted that, no, he is not frustrated with his performance or statistics, only with the idea that his at-bats last night affected his teammates. He did not necessarily say he let his teammates down. He said he’s getting himself into good hitter’s counts and then, “things happen.”
The day after Harper’s run-in with home plate umpire Angel Hernandez, he treaded delicately around the subject. He was asked if he believes umpires have called balls and strikes differently for him than other players, even other rookies, because of his high profile.
“I’m not going to say that,” Harper said. “I think I’m just trying to battle as best I can. I’ll let everybody else talk about it.”
When asked if he has been pitched to differently in the second half, Harper’s answer was revealing. He suggested pitchers had taken advantage of strike zones that consistently gave the opposing pitcher extra inches off the plate.
“When they know they’re going to get two or three inches off the plate, it’s good to pitch like that,” Harper said. “And if I’m the catcher, I’m calling that. You’ve got a lot of veteran guys that have been catching, especially in our division – [Carlos] Ruiz, [John] Buck, [Brian] McCann. You’ve got guys who know how to call pitches, and if they call a pitch 2-3 inches off, they’re going to go there again. If I’m catching I’m doing the same thing.
“Just try to adjust to that as much as I can. I’m not going to change my zone or anything. It’s going to suck if you strike out with three runners on in a 3-2 ballgame. It’s just something you’ve got to battle with and you just try to take it with a grain of salt.”
In the fourth inning last night, Harper struck out looking at a pitch that appeared to be well out of the strike zone, low and away, against Armando Galarraga. Harper exploded with a tirade against Hernandez before first base coach Trent Jewett interceded. This is how he saw the at-bat:
“Against Galarraga, there was a pitch called and I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine, 2-1, I’m still ahead in the count.’ I look at that. If I’m still ahead in the count, it’s fine. I hit with two strikes. I’m not bad at that. But when you have to chase a 2-1 fastball two inches off? It’s not fun, especially when you could be 3-1 and be ahead in the count even more.”
Harper continued, saying he would not alter his approach or the pitches he swung at based on umpiring. He would continue to swing at strikes and spit on balls.
“Just try to really not expand your zone,” Harper said. “With me, it’s either I’m trying to swing at every single pitch or I’m not. When he’s calling something that you don’t think is a strike, you’ve got to battle with it, do the best you can. That’s his zone. You’ve got to deal with that that night. All these umpires, they’re human beings, too. They make mistakes. Everybody does in this world. That’s their zone you’ve got to battle with that zone. I have a lot of respect for everybody out there so you can’t take anything away.”
Some numbers seem to back Harper up. Since all-star break, according to FanGraphs.com, Harper has swung at 29.5 percent of the pitches he has seen outside the strike zone, 106th most in the majors. Also since the break, 40 percent of the pitches Harper has seen have been inside the strike zone, 27th lowest in the majors. He has swung and missed at 8.5 percent of the pitches he has seen, 89th most in the majors.
So, relative to other major leaguers, Harper seems not to be swinging at many pitches out of the zone, seeing few strikes to hit and not swinging and missing all that much. And yet, he has struck out 22.4 percent of his plate appearances in the second, which ranks 43rd in the majors. There seems to be a disconnect.
In the sixth inning last night, Harper got into a 3-1 count with the bases loaded against rookie reliever Xavier Cedeno. He took two pitches that Pitch F/X technology showed were out of the zone, both low and outside. Hernandez called them both strikes. For the second time, he barked at Hernandez.
The way Harper saw it, an opportunity had been taken from Ryan Zimmerman, who was on deck behind him. That’s what upset him.
The way Johnson saw it, Harper had reacted with frustration and let it carry over – later in the game, Harper airmailed a throw to third base when he should have thrown to second to keep the batter to one base.
Johnson said he has not seen umpires treat Harper differently. With experience, Johnson said, Harper will learn different umpires’ strike zones. In the meantime, Johnson wants Harper to control his emotions if he absorbs a bad call.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with when somebody missed a pitch,” Johnson said. “What we were seeing there is, his emotions were being a little strong, and everything little thing is magnified in his eyes. You got to drop it. You got to take a little different approach. I’ve learned over the years, yelling at umpires and arguing with them a whole lot doesn’t do a lot of good. It may look good on TV or something. It doesn’t really do anything for your cause.”
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