In good times, the microscope on Harper is worthy of the world’s best biology labs. When he is hitting .133 for the month of June, as he was entering Thursday’s series finale against Baltimore, well, let’s just say there are theories. He’s hurt. Defensive shifts are messing with his mind. He’s frozen by his impending free agency.
“Everybody’s got an opinion,” Harper said Thursday afternoon. “Whatever they want to think.”
Whatever you want to think, understand this: Harper is hyper-aware of his current status as an impediment, rather than an engine, for an inconsistent Nationals offense. But he also doesn’t believe the player he has been for a month or more is the player he really is or the player he will be for the remainder of the season.
So the broad question: What the heck is going on, Bryce?
“The past couple weeks, I’ve just chased out of the zone a little too much,” Harper said. “The biggest thing I see in myself is really just swinging at pitcher’s pitches. There’s times where I’m on the corner and a strike is called, and then I chase something else and dig my own hole. I’ve got to work to get my pitches to hit.”
But what about free agency? If tens of millions of dollars — sorry, hundreds of millions of dollars — were on the line, that would be enough to freak anybody out. Harper is adamant: It doesn’t bother him. On Wednesday, as the Nats waited out a nearly three-hour rain delay, he sat in Dave Martinez’s office and chatted with his manager about it.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t think about it,’ ” Harper said of the conversation. “I really don’t. Me, personally, it doesn’t really bother me.”
And he goes back to his youth, still less than a decade ago, when he dropped out of high school to attend the College of Southern Nevada, a move that made him eligible for the draft a year earlier. He was 17, already mapping a professional future. That was pressure.
“That was one of the biggest, craziest years of my life,” Harper said. “I’ve got to play well because I’ve got to get drafted. I don’t play well, then I ain’t getting drafted.”
Put the contract aside, then, even if it’s one of the dominant topics in all of baseball. The last time Harper scuffled to a degree that even approaches this was in 2016, when he struggled to a .176 average and .621 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in July. Harper professed his good health that season, but it turned out he had an ailing shoulder. So the obvious question, as his OPS drops to an almost inexplicable .424 for June, is: Are you healthy?
“I was standing in the shower yesterday, and I’m like, ‘Man, my body feels great,’ ” Harper said. “Seriously. I’m strong. I work out every day. I haven’t lost any weight, and I feel stronger than ever. When I barrel a ball up, I hit it hard.”
About barreling those balls up: Harper understands he needs to do it more often. Yes, he wears glasses, but he can see just fine. Yes, teams shift against him, but as he said, “That’s baseball now. I can’t ask teams not to shift. It’s on me.”
There, really, is the thrust of a 20-minute conversation at his locker Thursday afternoon. This isn’t a player in denial. Here are the players entering play Thursday who had a lower OPS in June than Harper: Alcides Escobar, Jarrod Dyson and Luis Valbuena. Harper lives in a world in which he could trail only Mike Trout, Manny Machado and Kris Bryant in OPS and people might still ask, “What’s wrong with Bryce?” But he can walk you through each at-bat and explain both what went wrong — and what he needs to do better.
“Take [Wednesday] night against Britton,” Harper said, speaking of Orioles reliever Zach. This was leading off the ninth inning of a game the Nationals trailed 3-0. They needed base runners. Harper got ahead in the count 3-1. Britton threw him a sinker, down and out of the zone. Harper swung through it.
“I should have walked,” he said. It’s a small moment, but it’s typical of Harper’s recent difficulties. After walking an astonishing 38 times in March and April, he has walked just five times in June.
“I should take my walks and get on first base,” Harper said. “But it’s harder. It’s definitely harder.”
So Britton remained in the at-bat. He threw another sinker. Harper stung it to first — but lined out. In any slump for any player, there are what-can-you-do-about-it moments. And in any slump for any player, there are also moments in which the player knows he needs to do better. In the first inning of that same game, Harper came up with one out and men at the corners. The mission: get a run home. The result: rolling over a curveball. Double play. Inning over.
“Those are the moments where I probably get the most upset with myself — not helping my team,” Harper said. “I just want to get that run in. Any way it happens, I don’t care. Those are the moments you look at and go, ‘Dang, you got to get that run in.’ ”
And on Thursday, he did. Not only did he drive in the Nationals’ first run with a sacrifice fly in such a situation, but he walked twice, doubled to lead off the eighth — and scored the winning run in a 4-2 win.
Harper’s touchstone for his hitting always has been his father, Ron. And while they still talk, Harper said he is leaning heavily on Kevin Long, the Nationals’ first-year hitting coach. Harper said even as his numbers plummeted — a career .285 hitter entering the year, his average is .213 after Thursday’s win — he has tried to keep the same pregame routine. He hits in the cage under the stadium in the afternoon and has taken batting practice on the field regularly.
“The biggest thing that we talk about all the time is just, sometimes, less is more and to keep things simple,” Martinez said. “He’s going to hit. And I know he’s going to carry us for a month or two or whatever. So let’s not overwhelm him with different things.”
Still, Harper said he and Long have analyzed everything. Their conclusion: Swing at better pitches, dummy.
“We’ve looked at each other and said, ‘You look great,’ ” Harper said. “There’s nothing in your swing that I see that you’re doing or you look at and go, ‘You’ve got to overhaul something.’ It’s pitch selection. I’ve got to work to get a pitch in the zone and try to do damage with that pitch.”
Harper won the National League’s MVP award in 2015. Had he not been injured midway through August and missed more than a month, he might have won the award last year. Even with the Slump this year, he leads the NL in both homers and walks. This is a player who knows about doing damage. He said he does a good job of leaving his offensive issues at the park. “I’m not frustrated,” he said. But we all have our moments.
“There’s times where I sit there where I’m like, ‘Man, I probably could’ve hit that pitch,’ or, ‘Man, I should have taken that one,’ ” Harper said. “You sit there, and you’re like, ‘Damn.’ Or [wife] Kayla will bring it up, and we’ll talk about it for a minute, and then we’ll have dinner and watch our shows and move on.”
So here we are, in late June, with Bryce Harper trying to move on from this month. “You know,” he said, “I just want to help the team win.” And it’s kind of amazing that — with Murphy out for two months and Strasburg and Zimmerman on the disabled list and Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton each out for long stretches — Washington is still afloat.
“We have one goal: win the World Series,” Harper said. “That’s all I care about.”
It says here that the Washington Nationals will not win the World Series, not close, without Bryce Harper performing like Bryce Harper instead of, say, Jarrod Dyson. He knows that. This slump has been long. The season is longer.
“I’ve sat there and talked to Long and said, ‘This is going to make me so much better because I’m going to understand my zone a little bit more,’ ” Harper said. “Once I do get there and get a little bit better in that situation, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”