Let’s get this part out of the way first.
“On a personal level,” Bryce Harper said, “obviously I’m not where I want to be.”
Easy, now. We’re not rehashing the how-Bryce-ended-up-in-Philadelphia tale that dominated his April return to Nationals Park. Philadelphia is Harper’s home, and the Phillies are Harper’s team. That’s true this season and for a dozen years hence.
It’s amazing how quickly Harper has become part of the past here. If the Washington Nationals are going to climb back into the National League East race — heck, if they’re going to scratch back to .500 — beating Harper and his Phillies in the four-game series that had its first game rained out Monday night would be a nice starting point.
No, what Harper is referencing — “not where I want to be” — is himself as a baseball player. He is supposed to be an annual all-star, and he’ll probably miss the game this year. He entered this series against his old team hitting .247 — not where he wants to be. He hasn’t had a multi-hit game since June 5 — not where he wants to be. He is swinging and missing at an unprecedented rate — not where he wants to be.
This is whom the Phillies committed 13 years and $330 million to? He’s not — yet — who they want him to be.
“I got to a point where I was missing pitches in the zone,” Harper said Monday afternoon, standing near the indoor batting cage down the steps from the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park. “You’re able to see that from afar. I was just swinging at pitches out of the zone and then missing pitches in the zone. So just kind of trying to compress everything and trying to be a lot smarter up there.”
In so many ways, this is different uniform, same conversation with 2018 Harper, who struggled through the first half of his final season as a Nat. And here’s the thing it makes you wonder: What, exactly, did the Nationals let walk away? And who, exactly, did the Phillies get?
If you’re a Nats fan, and you think Harper’s performance in a new uniform doesn’t matter, consider that, whether it’s good or bad, it’ll directly affect the NL East race from now until your kids have graduated from college. It’s also hard to think about Harper in a Phillies uniform and not reflect on the Nats’ current free agent-to-be, third baseman Anthony Rendon. Put the finances aside for a minute and consider the following: Franchises can’t allow players the caliber of Harper and Rendon to walk in consecutive seasons and expect to annually contend.
Back to Bryce: I believed the Nationals should have made every effort to re-sign Harper over the past offseason not only because of what he had done for this franchise — giving the Nats a marketable face-of-the-sport figure for the seven seasons he played here — but for what was ahead, which I figured were Harper’s best years. He’s only 26, so that’s still possible. But is it probable?
There are alarming indicators. Harper’s strikeout rate — the percentage of plate appearances that end in a big, fat “K” — is 29.4 percent, which is not only the highest of his career but is the sixth-highest in the majors. Similarly, Harper’s swing-and-miss rate — the percentage of times he offers at a pitch but fails to make contact — is 32.1 percent, nearly one in every three swings, which is also the highest of his career and is the seventh-worst in the majors this season.
It’s possible — possible — that Harper turns this around. “Over the last couple of days he’s looked as good as he’s looked” all year, Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler said. His batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line of .247/.356/.464 is, in some ways, better than his pre-all-star-break slash line from 2018 (.214/.365/.468), and he upped those numbers with a .300/.434/.538 second half after winning the Home Run Derby and starting in the All-Star Game in what was then his home park.
“I think it’s pretty similar to last year,” Harper said. “I feel good, though. I don’t come in here feeling terrible every day. Last year, I felt terrible every single day. My swings, on a daily basis, just weren’t good. This year I feel great.”
Wait. Last year, he felt terrible every single day? Last June, he stood in the other clubhouse at Nats Park and told me: “I was standing in the shower yesterday, and I’m like, ‘Man, my body feels great.’ Seriously. I’m strong. I work out every day. I haven’t lost any weight, and I feel stronger than ever.”
This is sort of difficult to figure out. Given he was moving to hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, Harper figured to run into home runs accidentally. Yet during that difficult first half a year ago with the Nats, he had 23 bombs. This year, he has 12.
“He’s been on a slow trajectory to get to the right spot,” Kapler said. “He’s a little bit more upright [in his stance]. He’s a little bit more relaxed. [Sunday] was a super-relaxed look at the plate, so I think he’s right where he needs to be.”
And yet, the numbers. Again, I’ll admit I thought Harper had more seasons like his MVP year of 2015 in him — and maybe he does. That season, his 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging percentage felt Bonds-like. It remains the highest mark in baseball over the past 10 seasons entering 2019.
So in that sense, it’s an outlier in the sport. Is it an outlier in Harper’s career? That’s the question. Harper’s career OPS is .894 — right in line with Harmon Killebrew, Ryan Braun and Nolan Arenado. Nice company. But take away that MVP season — as if you can take away an entire MVP season — and his mark falls to .856, which is in the Troy Tulowitzki/Jeff Kent neighborhood. Good players but a step down.
Harper as a Nat and Harper as a Phillie are one and the same in the following way: They’re both supremely confident. But there’s a big difference in Harper as a Nat and Harper as a Phillie: The former was never booed at Nationals Park — until he returned in a different uniform. The latter has already been booed at home.
“It’s fine,” Harper said. “I’m all about it. They come out, they want the best out of you, and I understand that. They just want you to play hard on both sides of the ball. If I punch out four times in one game, then I expect it. They’re so passionate.”
Monday, the latest all-star voting update was released. Harper, an all-star in six of his seven big league season, ranked 10th among NL outfielders. There’s a good chance, three weeks from now, he won’t be in Cleveland.
“Just to be able to get away from everything — mentally, physically, just to have a couple of days to decompress — would be great,” he said. “I feel like from last February to now it’s been baseball — baseball, baseball, baseball. Being able to relax would be nice.”
Bryce Harper is back in town this week, and it already feels different than that first trip two months ago. The Nationals, the Phillies and Harper himself — they’re all trying to find themselves. It all matters, because division titles — whether this summer or in the future — will depend on what kind of player the Nationals let go and the Phillies got.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.