By now, you’ve heard Bryce Harper explain how he wants to be calmer at the plate, under the advice of Manager Matt Williams. “I’m trying to be quick, not as strong,” Harper aptly put it on Friday, after he smashed another home run. He doesn’t need to muscle up and “hit a ball 900 feet,” but he still hit one half that distance on Saturday. He knows he only needs to be on time and swing the bat quickly; the pitcher will supply the power.
Part of the calmer Harper also includes plate discipline. Harper has always displayed an older-than-his-years knowledge of the strike zone and reached base at a good clip. But by better controlling the lower half of his body, and avoiding movements that are too violent, Harper allows his head to remain steadier and recognize pitches better, and put his body in a better position to react to pitches.
So far this season, Harper has shown an even stronger ability to hold off on tough pitches and draw walks. His 11 walks are most on the Nationals and tied with Toronto’s Jose Bautista for second most in the majors. Harper has still struck out 18 times, fourth most in the majors, but he has managed a solid .966 OPS thanks to his walks and four home runs.
“We talk a lot about driving runs in and things like that, and that’s kind of the hardest thing to learn in the big leagues is when they’re going to pitch to you, when they’re not,” Ryan Zimmerman said of Harper. “So far this year, he’s done an unbelievable job of that, and I think that’s kind of the next step as a hitter of maturing and learning what they’re going to do to you. So it’s good to see him do that.”
As a result of Harper’s dangerous power, opposing teams have also elected not to face him. Harper has hit mostly third, sometimes cleanup, in the Nationals lineups this season, a perfect spot for his left-handed bat to be surrounded by the right-handed bats of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman.
In the fifth inning of Sunday’s win over the Phillies, Manager Ryne Sandberg elected to have right-handed starter David Buchanan put Harper on first base with an intentional walk and take his chances against Zimmerman, a logical choice when in a bind against the heart of the Nationals lineup. The Phillies lost that battle: Zimmerman doubled on a soft flyball to right field to give the Nationals a 3-0 lead.
“It’s smarter to pitch to me than it is to him,” Zimmerman said. “He’s been swinging better as of right now, and he’s done a great job of taking his walks so far this year.”
Harper has been intentionally walked a career-high five times already this season, most in baseball by two walks, in 13 games. Each of the past two seasons, Harper has been intentionally walked four times. The Phillies have accounted for that number with Harper already this season, including three intentional walks during the recent four-game series. Sunday was the first time Zimmerman delivered right after an intentional walk of Harper just ahead of him.
“It’s a product of where we’re at in the game, that particular game,” Williams said of Harper’s intentional walks. “I think it goes from game to game. [Sunday], they’ve got a decision to make with Harp and a man on second base. They chose to pitch to Zim. I don’t know anybody in their right mind who wouldn’t, the way he’s swinging and the way Harp’s swinging, they’re not gonna let that guy beat ya. But beyond that, Zim’s got the ability to drive runs in, too. That’s why he hits in the middle of our lineup, and that’s why he’s been so good.”
If Harper remains as powerful, patient and selective as he has appeared much of the season so far, he may be getting more free passes to first base and Zimmerman may play an even bigger tole in driving in runs.
FROM TODAY’S POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATIONALS MINOR LEAGUES
Scranton/WB 4, Syracuse 1: Taylor Jordan allowed four runs, only one earned, over 5 1/3 innings. Matt Grace and Manny Delcarmen combined for 3 2/3 scoreless innings.
Harrisburg 10, Binghamton 2: Austin Voth gave up one run and struck out five over six innings. Bryan Harper gave up one unearned run over two innings for the win. Pedro Severino went 4 for 4 with two RBI. Shawn Pleffner and Caleb Ramsey also each drove in two runs.
Lynchburg 4, Potomac 1: Matthew Span coughed up four runs, three earned, on 10 hits over seven innings. Brandon Miller went 2 for 4 and James Yezzo drove in the lone P-Nats’ run.
Hagerstown 5, Lakewood 0: Phillips Valdez fired six scoreless innings, with no walks and two strikeouts. Ryan Ullman provided three spotless innings of relief. Jose Marmalejos-Diaz and Jeff Gardner each had two hits, and Dale Carey drove in two.