MIAMI — For the second time this season, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported that Bryce Harper is playing through a right shoulder injury. For the second time this season, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker and General Manager Mike Rizzo vehemently denied the report. For the second time this season, Harper refused to address it.
Asked for a minute of his time Tuesday, Harper — who is generally amenable to such requests — said “not anything about Verducci,” aware of the report and the questions to come.
Baker denied the report in which he is quoted as referencing the “shoulder thing” and saying Harper’s “balance is off.” Baker did not deny saying those things. He said he was describing Harper’s previous trouble, not talking about a lingering problem.
“That’s totally inaccurate. I don’t know where they got that from,” Baker said. “… Bryce said it didn’t come from him. Nobody really knows where it comes from because it’s not on the injury report. The trainer said no. We treated that shoulder already in the past. If I did make a mistake it was because it’s in his neck, which is connected to his shoulder.”
Reports of a shoulder injury first surfaced in mid-August, when Harper sat out five games with what he and the Nationals described as a “stiff neck.” He could often be seen walking around the clubhouse with signs of cupping, special taping and other treatments on his right neck area — which, of course, connects to the shoulder in question. But players are often seen walking around the clubhouse after treatments like those. Harper was not placed on the disabled list then.
“It was in his neck, but at that time he couldn’t throw,” said Baker, confirming something Verducci reported about Harper being nearly unable to throw during that week in August. “It’s all connected. You can’t have one without the other … Bryce, you’ve seen him throw. He’s throwing great. If he had a shoulder problem, [Atlanta Braves base running coach] Bo Porter wouldn’t have held up the runners four or five times in Atlanta. That was just three days ago.”
Baker also contradicted the notion that lingering shoulder trouble has prevented Harper from swinging as frequently and aggressively as he did last year, thereby leading to his reduced production.
“He has been hitting lots. He’s been hitting a lot of extra in the cage,” Baker said. “Now what I did say, I felt his balance was off, and that’s my opinion. I’m not changing that. I see what I see.”
Asked about the report Tuesday, Rizzo calmly reiterated what had been an initially spirited denial in August:
“The report is wrong, the information is wrong,” Rizzo said. “I just talked to the player again because of the new stuff that came out, and he says it’s the 4-5 days he had with the neck. That’s it.”
Asked about the shoulder injury when he returned from sitting out those five games in August,” Harper said “I thought coming in today, I was able to help the team win. And that’s what I want to do.” In other words, while his manager and general manager have put their credibility on the line to say the report is not true, Harper has not denied it.
So to some extent, the question of what — if anything — is wrong with the reigning MVP has been reduced to a question of credibility, because several different versions of the truth have emerged. Everyone on the Nationals’ side says the report is inaccurate, and both Rizzo and Baker said Harper told them as much. Verducci obviously believes his sources to be credible. Harper will not confirm or deny himself. So what to make of it?
Well, remember a few things:
First of all, players at times have been known to keep their mouths shut about injuries — even to their coaching staffs. Baker, however, takes great pride in noticing little things and sitting players he thinks show signs of fatigue or injury. He said as much before Tuesday’s game.
Secondly, Verducci is a longtime baseball journalist who did not get to Sports Illustrated, nor earn face time on MLB Network, by reporting utter nonsense. He also happens to be the man who wrote the Sports Illustrated cover story on 16-year-old Harper, “Baseball’s LeBron.” But he is not around the Nationals on a daily, or even weekly, basis.
Additionally, Harper’s numbers have dropped off this season. He is not hitting for the same average, nor with the same exit velocity, as he did during his MVP season. He is swinging at fewer pitches he sees in the zone, and in general, than he did last year. He is not hitting as well on outside pitches, which would require that lead shoulder to reach and stabilize, as he did last season. He is also hitting far worse on off-speed pitches away from him than he did this season — a problem that would result from stepping out and being off-balance, as his manager suggested.
Could those problems be a product of a lingering shoulder injury? Sure. Could they be a product of a slumping hitter struggling to find timing and not seeing the ball well? That conclusion is also a reasonable one. Perhaps time will tell. Perhaps, someday, Harper will. For now, he has not confirmed reports of a shoulder injury. He has not denied it, either.
After a “mental day off” Monday, he is back in the Nationals’ lineup Tuesday night against Jose Fernandez.