PHOENIX — Day after day before the Washington Nationals left on their seven-game road trip, then for a few afternoons during it, Bryce Harper took batting practice on the field an hour or so before his teammates. Various players joined him for these sessions — Daniel Murphy one day, Matt Wieters the next, and so on — but nothing else changed. Harper, in his gray Vegas Golden Knights T-shirt and all-black Washington Nationals hat, swung hard and for the fences, sending baseball after baseball far out of whichever stadium hosted his practice sessions that day.
The man behind these sessions was hitting coach Kevin Long, who thought Harper needed a reminder of what it felt like to do damage on the most hittable pitches. He saw the 25-year-old swinging at less-hittable pitches, a bad habit that need not derail him if pitchers were going to pitch around him anyway. Only Barry Bonds, in his record breaking 2004 season, walked more in March and April than Harper did this year. If Harper would just be patient, he would walk plenty, too. If pitchers came at him, he needed to make sure he punished them for it.
But early this season, Harper has not punished them enough, or been patient enough — or perhaps just not been settled enough for anyone around the Nationals to feel completely comfortable with his performance. “Enough,” of course, is relative here. He was doing “enough” to be tied for the major league lead in home runs with 13 entering Monday night. He was doing “enough” to rank in the top 20 in on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
Yet during a season many will spend trying to decide how much he is worth, Harper has not done enough to stave off conversations about the extent of his superstardom, or provided much clarity about exactly what kind of player he is — and exactly what kind of player he will be.
More than anything this season, Harper has been inconsistent. His new coaching staff, such as Long with his batting-practice sessions and Manager Dave Martinez with his lineup switches, has spent much of this season trying to find ways to help him be steadier. He has been streaky enough to foster questions about which player he actually is — if a hot-and-cold superstar might be who Harper is, after all.
In March and April, he walked more than almost anyone in major league history: 38 times in 29 games. In May, he has walked three times in 12 games, and his on-base percentage during this month is nearly 200 points lower than it was at the end of April.
While Martinez repeatedly said he just wants Harper to “take his walks” because that is what helps his team most, Harper expressed frustration and began swinging at pitches he couldn’t annihilate.
“At 25, you want to hit the baseball,” Harper said, memorably, in the midst of those frustrations. Martinez moved him to the leadoff spot, hoping Harper would get more pitches to hit, sympathetic to his frustrations.
Harper looked better for a few days, then slipped into an 0-for-19 slump that earned him his first day off all season and a bump to the second spot in the order. Harper went 5 for 18 during the team’s four-game series at Arizona, with two doubles and a home run. He is hitting .236, and more than a third of his hits (13 of 33) are home runs. Five of his 11 hits in May are homers, a ratio uncharacteristic for Harper, who has earned a reputation as more of a complete hitter than an all-or-nothing type. Then again, Harper’s batting average on balls in play for the season is abysmal: .196, almost 70 points below his lowest single-season mark and 120 points worse than his career average. He is getting far fewer hits out of balls that stay in the park than he has in the past, though a dip that large often results in part from mere bad luck.
Agent Scott Boras, the man with the honor — or, perhaps, the burden — of chasing what many expect will be the biggest contract in baseball history for one of the most talked-about talents in generations, sees a small sample size in Harper’s early ups and downs. He is not wrong to do so, as the season is a quarter of the way through, and 41 games’ worth of numbers does not determine a season.
“What I go by is if a player is healthy. Is he hitting the ball hard?” Boras said last week while sitting a few rows behind home plate as Harper took batting practice at San Diego’s Petco Park. “Coming down here, man, the ball — wow, it’s just coming off his bat, and it’s loud. Obviously you have 100 at-bats and sometimes you get eight more hits or eight less. But I just worry about how he’s hitting the ball. And he’s been hitting it really hard.”
Harper’s defense, too, raises questions. Harper is, tool for tool, one of the most talented players in baseball. The power of his arm is well documented. His speed is good enough to steal bases regularly, when he is given the green light to do so.
But this season, Harper ranks last among National League right fielders in advanced defensive metrics. This past weekend in Arizona, Harper made several crucial defensive plays that required him to range. A few of them earned notice from Max Scherzer, who said Harper “covered the line the way he needs to.”
Harper is noticeably careful these days, avoiding dives and walls and all manner of dangerous attempts. Asked about them after games, he often keeps the explanation simple — like when he pulled up abruptly a few weeks ago on a ball he seemed to have within his range. Asked whether he lost the ball or misread his spot on the field, he simply said, “Didn’t want to run into the wall.”
Boras can spin a cautious approach as greater value, rather than as a knock against Harper.
“Knowing your walls, knowing what to do and how to do it, he’s accomplished that. He knows how to be available for his team,” Boras said. “He knows how to maintain that equilibrium between being aggressive and being protective.”
Perhaps the most consistent thing about Harper this season is his unwillingness to talk about what comes next. His demeanor around the clubhouse — sometimes surly, always quiet, consistently inconspicuous outside of his high-fashion outfits — remains unchanged. As so many people read into his every move and word, Harper remains inscrutable. If the pressure of a contract year has affected him, it has not led to a major personality shift.
Boras, who has been through contract years with market-altering megastars — such as, say, Alex Rodriguez — doesn’t believe the next few months will change anyone’s perception of Harper enough to warrant much pressure. He told Harper to focus on his routine and reminded him that the highs and lows of a season will even out if he does.
“You’ve already arrived. No matter what these next 300, 400, 500 at-bats do, you’ve arrived. So when you’re in it, probability-wise, you’ve substantiated over five years that you belong,” Boras said. “That’s why the routine is so important. You have to be yourself daily. You’ve got nothing to prove other than repetition if you’re disciplined in what you do.”
Perhaps Boras is right. Perhaps Harper cannot change his value substantially between now and October. But all eyes are on the Nationals right fielder and, after a month of the 2018 season, few are certain of what they are seeing.