PHILADELPHIA — The Major League Baseball schedule-makers blessed the Philadelphia Phillies with a day off at home Monday, the team’s first in nearly a month, and right fielder Bryce Harper and wife Kayla spent it house-hunting, venturing out from their Center City apartment to a series of suburban enclaves in search of the home where they will spend the next — *checks watch* — 12 years and some-odd months of their lives.
The baby boy due in August — “No Juniors” was all Harper would say in regards to the baby names under consideration for their first child — will be almost a teenager when the 13-year, $330 million contract Harper signed with the Phillies in March finally expires.
Clearly, Bryce Harper isn’t much for change. One trip through free agency was more than enough for him — he told everyone who would listen that the lengthy deal, the lack of an opt-out and the full no-trade clause in his Phillies contract were his ideas — and the same goes for buying a house.
“With the kid coming, we’re just trying to get somewhere quicker than later, just so we can lay down some roots and stay there and not have to move,” he said Thursday. “We just want to do this once.”
The Phillies opened play Friday in first place in the National League East, nine games clear of the team he left following seven years of service, the Washington Nationals. If the Nationals’ ugly start can’t be fully explained by Harper’s absence — he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about that bullpen, even if he had stayed — neither can the Phillies’ solid opening two months be explained by Harper’s presence.
Despite showing signs of a breakout — a 3-for-4 game with a pair of doubles and an RBI on Thursday has him hitting .406 with a home run, six doubles and 10 RBI in his past eight games — Harper’s 2019 season to this point has been defined by his pedestrian overall performance. Entering Friday, he ranked 55th in the majors in on-base plus slugging percentage (.860) — jumping 10 spots after his big day against the Cardinals, tied for 57th in homers (10) and tied for 171st in wins above replacement (1.0). The only place you would find his name atop the major league leaders was in strikeouts with 76.
“It started as a lull, I guess you would say,” Harper said. “I’ve been feeling really good as of late. But being able to be in the lineup every day, keep plugging away, is huge. You’re going to have ups and downs in a season. I went through a little of it last year. It’s just part of it.”
Some of the areas in which Harper has struggled this season are more concerning than others, at least on the face of it. He entered the weekend, for example, hitting just .255 with a .445 slugging percentage against fastballs — a pitch he has always crushed, to the tune of .299 with a .638 slugging percentage in 2018 and .352 and .700 during his MVP season of 2015. This year, he has swung and missed at 30.3 percent of all fastballs; in 2018, it was 27.2 percent, and in 2015, just 22.3.
“The best sluggers, the superstars — when they struggle, they tend to struggle with everything,” Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler said. “And they tend to whack fastballs when they’re going good. But when they’re not going good, it’s one of the pitches they tend to struggle with.”
Lately, the Phillies have been hammering into Harper the notion of easing up on the brute force of his swing — standing taller at the plate, staying looser and freer with his mechanics and allowing his natural strength and bat-speed do the rest. Kapler compared it to a golfer swinging at full force for maximum distance vs. swinging at a controlled level for more accuracy.
“When you’re kind of loose and easy, you’re more accurate with the clubhead and you square it up,” Kapler said. “The name of this game is squaring up the baseball and making solid contact. Bryce is so strong that all he has to do is make solid contact with the baseball, and the ball is going to move abnormally fast. When he’s loose and relaxed at the plate he catches up to everything. …
“What we’re trying to get to is an effort level that allows the natural athleticism to take over and allows him to be really accurate with the barrel. I think Bryce is as strong and explosive as anyone in our game. And sometimes that strength and explosiveness is so powerful that he’s not as accurate as he can be.”
In Thursday’s 5-3 loss to St. Louis, both of Harper’s doubles came on two-seam fastballs from Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson, each on easy swings that produced line drives to the opposite field — the first of them hitting near the top of the wall. His third hit, a sharp single to right, came on a first-pitch slider from Cardinals left-hander Andrew Miller.
“I just want to keep plugging along, keep having fun, not really worrying about whether I’m going to go 15 for my next 10 — you know, trying to do so much, to where it’s like: ‘Oh, I’ve got to catch up. I’ve got to catch up,’ ” Harper said. “Not when I still have four months left, and it’s a long season.”
One of the many fascinating aspects of the Harper-Phillies marriage was its pairing of one of the most deeply data-driven, analytics-focused organizations in baseball with one of its purest “feel” hitters. Harper has never been the type to get swept up in the latest analytics-driven trends in baseball, whether the rise of launch-angle swings or the slow creep of technology — data-tracking devices, high-speed cameras, bat sensors and the like — into training.
And that hasn’t changed since he joined an organization that believes in those things.
“They let me do my own thing,” Harper said. “If I need something, I’ll go to them. But they know who I am and how I go about it. If I want to look at something, I’ll look at something, but I generally try to stay away from it.”
The Phillies, meanwhile, profess to have no interest in changing Harper through data and video analysis. But it’s just as likely they already know that’s a battle they can’t win.
“We’re definitely happy letting him be a feel guy,” Kapler said. “The reason we acquired Bryce and the reason we love Bryce so much is for who he is and what he’s done and what he’s capable of and what he’s already doing. What we do is, we try to get as much information as possible. However, we only give information that [players] are interested in having.
“So we’re perfectly happy with Bryce’s approach to his game. We’re not trying to change it at all.”