Walls are undefeated against Bryce Harper. Monday’s crash into the one in right field at Dodger Stadium left the Washington Nationals outfielder requiring 11 stitches. Harper definitely needs work on his fielding — his all-out approach is fine.
For Harper, each at-bat is the most important of his career. He hustles on every grounder. Harper would rather risk suffering an injury in an attempt to win than wonder whether he could have done more. It’s called playing the game the right way. At only 20, Harper shouldn’t worry about slowing down. He’s only getting started.
Harper’s style is risky. In only his second season, he already has endured a lot of pain he could have avoided. There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe. That’s how most people think. But superstar athletes such as Harper are different.
They strive to achieve greatness. And after they do, they push themselves even further. Physical sacrifice — during training, practice or while chasing flyballs in May — is as much a part of their routine as putting on a uniform. It’s what the Nationals expect from Harper.
Manager Davey Johnson is convinced that Harper, because of his combination of talent and competitiveness, could become one of baseball’s all-time greats.
“He’s not worried about the wall or anything,” Johnson told reporters in Los Angeles. “He should know it’s on the warning track and back off, but that’s not his nature. I don’t want to change that. I feel sorry for the wall if he keeps running into them.”
Johnson isn’t stupid. In fact, he’s among the smartest guys in his business.
Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo also is razor sharp. Johnson and Rizzo acknowledge Harper has to do some things differently — especially in the field.
Almost from the moment he reached the big leagues, Harper has been losing battles with outfield walls. During the second game of his rookie season, Harper made a highlight-reel catch while slamming into the center field wall at Dodger Stadium. He also injured his back. Last month, Harper badly bruised his left side while attempting to rob a home run in Atlanta. The converted catcher’s inexperience in the outfield shows.
Harper is learning on the job, “and when it comes to the nuances of going back on the ball, the distance from the warning track to the wall, the batter’s [power], how much time you have to make a decision . . . it takes time to get all of that,” Rizzo told me in a phone conversation Tuesday night. “Now, we don’t want him running into walls. Okay?
“We agree that he can’t keep doing that. But everyone forgets that he’s only been playing the outfield [full time since 2010]. He’s certainly going to get better at it. He’s a good corner outfielder right now. And in the very near future, he’s going to be a really, really good one. But there are always things you have to work on. Bryce doesn’t need anyone to tell him that.”
Often, Johnson and his coaches counsel Harper on other issues related to his aggressiveness. Harper could have suffered a serious injury when, in anger last season in Cincinnati, he slammed his bat against a wall and hit himself in the eye. Although Harper only had a cut, it was a good teaching opportunity on the wrong way to channel frustration. “If you see something you need to talk about,” Johnson said, “then you talk about it.”
The Nationals never, however, pull the reins too tight. Harper is unique. He needs freedom to find out how good he can be. Johnson and Rizzo get that.
“From the day we brought him up, he’s played 110 mph with his hair on fire, and if you tried to change that you’d change the player he is,” Rizzo said. “That wouldn’t work. You can’t tell him to be anything but himself. Davey and the coaches are around him every day. They know how he has to play. They know him.”
The results prove it. When Harper slumped as a rookie, some Nationals observers suggested Harper was tired from the grind of his first season. Johnson disagreed. Harper wasn’t tired, Johnson said, he was getting adjusted. How’d it all work out? Great for Harper: He finished strong and was selected the National League rookie of the year.
The team is handling Harper the right way. Nationals fans need to trust Johnson and Rizzo. Last season, there were at least 98 reasons why they should.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Aren’t you the guy who wrote that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III should take fewer risks?” The answer is yes.
Griffin has had reconstructive knee surgery twice. If Griffin keeps challenging 300-pound nose tackles, he’ll quickly become a former NFL player. Harper merely has to gain a better feel for playing the outfield. There’s a big difference.
Many years ago in the NBA, a gifted rookie was advised to stop diving for every loose ball. Competing so hard, veterans warned him, would shorten his career. But Larry Bird only knew one way to play. Same goes for Harper.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.