If Bryce Harper did not have such a long and varied résumé of major league successes, what has happened over the last few weeks would not be worth the energy so many who write and talk about this game devote to it. But Harper is not a man with a history of slides like the one pulling his batting average to subterranean levels. So when he struggles like this, something is off, something is different. Changes always seem worth noting.
Harper has such a long history of 100 mph line drives and prolific home runs, it feels almost absurd that a little bloop hit in the fifth inning of a June game could feel like such a big deal. But that hit, the one that fell into short left field to tie Tuesday night’s game, was just his second hit in the last eight days. That hit felt monumental.
For weeks the question has been “what is off?” and many have offered answers. The answer, drawn from observations and data, conversations and the eye test, seems to be that Harper is swinging more than normal, missing pitches he usually hits, and suffering from a fair bit of shift-induced bad luck. The combination has dropped his batting average to .213, and whatever the statheads say about batting average’s relevance as a statistic — generally, that it has none — a drop that precipitous says something has changed.
Perhaps more importantly, a drop like that is impossible for Harper to ignore, as the number greets him on the scoreboard before each at-bat, as regularly as questions about his free agent value are debated around him. The answer to the question of “what is wrong?” is multifacted. The answer to the less-asked question of “how is he doing?” is even more complicated.
Whatever Harper is thinking, he won’t let on. Asked how he is feeling at the plate this weekend, Harper said, “I feel great.” The answer tests credulity, but even if it is genuine, Harper has certainly felt better. His manager, Dave Martinez, brought up the star’s mental state before a game against the Blue Jays in Toronto last weekend. He said he was laughing and joking around and seemed to be in good spirits. He talked about how he and his staff suggested to Harper that he was taking too many swings in the cage, trying too hard, spinning his wheels until his head was spinning, too. Martinez, like so many others, is keeping a close eye on Harper as he endures the most prolonged and prolific slump of his career.
“I’m very proud that he’s working on stuff. For me, he’s a constant professional. He wants to win,” Martinez said. “There’s no ifs, ands, buts about it. When I talk to him daily, all he ever tells me is that he just wants to help the team win.”
His general manager, who came to Harper’s spirited defense when an unnamed executive criticized him from afar, is keeping an eye on him, too.
“I think he’s handled [his struggles] with class and dignity. I think he’s been a great teammate through it all,” Mike Rizzo said. “It’s easy to be a good teammate when you’re 4 for 4 and hitting .330. It’s tough when you’re 1 for 20 or you’re 1 for 25 and struggling.”
Harper’s demeanor in the clubhouse has not changed much, though he was not an outspoken and gregarious presence to begin with. He is still quiet, still sometimes surly. To those who cover him every day — those around him but not close to him — the biggest off-field differences in April Bryce Harper and June slumping Bryce Harper are a pair of translucent eyeglasses and a clean-shaven face. Martinez says he has asked Harper about whether he needs a day off here and there but that Harper keeps telling him he wants to play. Even as the Nationals’ outfield has become healthier and more crowded, Harper has played in every game since May 9, with one pinch-hit appearance (a half-day off, perhaps) in that stretch.
“I think he’s shown the maturity and the class to be a good teammate and more worried about the wins than the hits, and I think that’s an important aspect he’s learned throughout his career,” Rizzo said. “He’s become a team leader for us, and when you’re going your worst, you have to be at your best, and I think that’s what Harp’s shown this season in the way he’s grinded through these struggles.”
Rizzo’s constant and consistent defense of his star stands out as the summer hits its stride. Harper’s free agency is looming, and Rizzo has made clear, over and over, answer after answer, that he will stand behind Harper through it all. He has never had to stand behind him through struggles like these before. The still-young superstar has never endured them.
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