Whenever Scott Boras shows up for batting practice, a line of Nationals players makes its way over to shake his hand. He represents so many of them — seven on the active roster, two more on the 40-man — that he often spends most of BP chatting with clients.
Stephen Drew, Oliver Perez and Max Scherzer wandered over before Game 4, as did Bryce Harper. As they tend to do, given his unique magnetism for such things, various rumors have eddied around Harper this year — most notably, a Sports Illustrated report of a shoulder injury the Nationals vehemently denied, while Harper and Boras remained quiet.
Harper has not spoken about the injury during the postseason, nor has it been evident in his play. He is 3 for 14 with four walks, sliding headfirst into bases and looking strong in right field. As has been the case since he returned from sitting out five games with a neck injury in August, any lingering shoulder injury is not obvious. But Harper’s unwillingness to deny the report, and Mike Rizzo and Dusty Baker’s eagerness to do so, fostered natural questions about who was telling the truth and what exactly would motivate either side to do otherwise.
Asked whether the Nationals were pushing Harper to play through an injury this year, Boras said “if there’s anybody pushing Bryce, it’s Bryce.”
“He’s obviously played with limitations at times this year, no question,” Boras said. “… It’s a very different year when you lead the league in walks and intentional walks, making the adjustment about how to handle how the league’s decided to take away what you normally have instead of challenging you.”
The fact that 2016 is, to use Boras’s words, “a very different year” is what made the rumor stick in the first place — and what makes it worth revisiting. Harper hit .330 with 42 home runs when he won the National League MVP at 22 years old in 2015. A year later, he hovered around .240 and hit 24 homers. That precipitous drop inspired many theories; one is a lingering injury, the other diminishing patience for opponents’ extreme caution. In other words, reaching for pitches he did not before.
“There’s a lot of things that go on when you’re a star player at a young age,” Boras said. “It’s kind of like high school. When you’re a great player, your sophomore year is often your best year. Maybe your junior year. Not when you’re a senior, because they stop throwing to you. You have to make that adjustment. The major leagues have made that adjustment, and he’s evolving to it. There’s a physical and a psychological component to that.”
Stephen Strasburg did not get to say hello to his agent Tuesday. By the time batting practice began, he had already played some light catch in the outfield and headed back to the clubhouse. Strasburg threw his second bullpen since partially tearing the pronator tendon in his throwing arm Sept. 7. He was supposed to throw 35 pitches but ended up throwing more like 30 — working in the curveball along with fastballs and change-ups for the first time before experiencing “a little discomfort” that forced the Nationals to halt the session.
Dusty Baker later dismissed the problem as “no thing,” and said the team expects him to continue his throwing program. The fact that Strasburg played catch Tuesday suggested the Nationals have not fully shut him down, though with a decisive Game 5 looming Thursday night, the decision of whether or not to do so might soon get easier.
Boras has always been outspoken about protecting pitchers, and he supported the Nationals’ decision to shut the star down before the 2012 playoffs. For what it’s worth, he seemed just fine with Washington’s decision to let Strasburg continue throwing after another elbow injury in the hopes that he might return sometime this October.
“It’s something only bullpens and the medical staff after the bullpens can determine where he is,” Boras said. “Normally with these type of things, it takes a long time. But try to wait four weeks, five weeks, see where you’re at, if there’s a chance. … The communication is good. They have a long-term interest. We have one, too. Things are mutual.”