Bryce Harper may have to spend the next several years enduring an annoyance, and trying to learn to exploit an opportunity, that has been experienced by perhaps just three other ballplayers: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds. Their common experience? Being walked — out of fear, but in hopes that they would be flummoxed — at a rate of about once a game, for year after year.
Ruth, Williams and Bonds all overcame the Walk Strategy to become, perhaps, the three most feared hitters ever. Their greatest seasons often came when they were walking the most. They solved maybe the hardest problem a batter can face: a league-wide decision to “not give him anything to hit.”
Can Harper solve that conundrum, too?
On Monday night, Harper arrived at his locker after going hitless against the Mets, swinging impatiently at pitches early in the count and making four soft outs on pop flies and dribblers. His nearly month-long slump has now lasted 27 games in which he has a .184 average and two home runs.
And 38 walks.
“I felt great up there,” said Harper, who is usually candid about his hitting. “You have to understand you may only get one or two [good] pitches a game. If you don’t hit them, it’s your fault.”
Perhaps Harper senses he is about to get hot again. But that’s certainly not where he has been. In late April, Harper fell into a normal hitting slump that happened to coincide with the moment when much of MLB, agog at his early-season performance, decided to try to Bryce-Proof the game.
Who can blame them? In the Nats’ first 18 games, a ninth of a season, Harper was on pace for 82 homers and 208 RBI, but just 90 walks. The light bulb went off: Why are we pitching to this monster?
The Phillies started the trend. Ten days later, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon took it to the extreme, bragging that his pitchers might walk Harper every time up; then they did walk him 13 times in four games, including six in one game.
Harper isn’t amused. In recent days, he sometimes has lacked his customary energy and seems less enthusiastic both on the field and in the dugout. Greatness lusts to express itself. And Harper’s ambition has been temporarily squelched. Last year, he walked a lot: 124 times. It didn’t bother him. But that’s nothing like what’s confronting him now.
“I feel like I can walk 200 times this year, if I wanted to,” Harper said this week.
But does he want to?
Those few stars who were paid the ultimate compliment of constant walks all figured out that, with the right attitude, they could turn what seemed like a pox into an advantage. Years ago, before he went into a shell because of PED troubles, Bonds explained why frightened pitchers were his friend.
Hurlers constantly fell behind in counts hoping he would fish for bad balls. That gave him many chances within the same game to anticipate — really, guess — pitches or locations. Or sometimes both, such as “low fastball.” He studied tendencies. Then he waited. If he got what he was anticipating, he usually clobbered it. When he got to two strikes, he battled. But until then, he was just picking low-hanging fruit. If he didn’t get something to his taste, he walked.
For 10 years, including his 73-homer season, Dusty Baker was Bonds’s manager.
“Barry mastered taking concentration to the next level. I never saw him get frustrated,” Baker said this week. “I’ve even seen him take off his elbow guard in the middle of the pitch to go to first base. But Barry was [37 in 2001]. He’d learned to deal with it. How would he have dealt with it at 23?”
You don’t have to be old to be smart. Williams and Ruth faced the walk issue in their third full seasons as everyday players. At 22, Williams walked 147 times in 143 games — about 40 percent more than his first two years — yet that was also the famous season when he hit .406.
Williams was so analytical that he made a grid of the strike zone and estimated what he thought he could hit on pitches in every inch of it. His response to the plot to frustrate him was to turn the tables and frustrate them. He’d never swing at a ball to help out those crumb-bum pitchers.
From age 25 to 31, Ruth drew between 142 and 170 walks in every full season he played, yet that is exactly the period when he revolutionized the sport. The Babe beat the base on balls in his usual simple, intuitive way. “Get a good pitch and sock it,” he’d say. Everyone heard “sock.” Many overlooked the extreme patience in “get a good pitch.”
“Roy Campanella said the same thing: ‘Get a good pitch and take a good pass at it,’ ” Baker said. “Always ‘a good pass.’ He didn’t say, ‘Hit it to the moon.’ ”
Typical of hitters in slumps, Harper currently swings like he has lunar landings in mind.
“It’s got to be frustrating, always trying to temper yourself, trying to figure out when they are going to pitch to you,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But remember: Last year they started walking him a lot. Bryce always keeps learning. He’ll figure this out, too.”
Harper doesn’t need advice. He already knows the proper formula. He just has to apply it better. “Every at-bat, every pitch, think ‘strike,’ ” Harper said Monday. Then, if it isn’t, don’t swing.
In the annals of easy-to-say, hard-to-do, this mantra may take the prize. Especially when the desire to be great, to live out what seems like your fate, and to help your team win, has driven your whole life.
“There’s nothing he can do about it,” Zimmerman said with a shrug.
So, start the long trek toward relentless focus wed to infinite patience. Even for the best, never easy.