Nationals didn't panic when Harper hit skid
After his performance took downturn, teenager broke out with torrid month
NEW YORK -- Bryce Harper doesn't like to talk about it when things are going well for him at the plate. Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein has an aversion to the word "slump." Fortunately for Washington, it's Eckstein, and not Harper, who has something to talk about these days.
Harper has been surging for a month now, following a two-month dip that dragged his numbers way down and opened up the competition for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He's hitting for average and hitting for power. Harper is hitting lefties. He even hit knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who was threatening to become a nemesis for him, on Tuesday night.
All of which means Harper is not much for explanations at the moment.
"When I'm doing well, I don't like talking about it," Harper said at Citi Field on Tuesday. "If I'm doing bad, I'll talk about it."
Even with an 0-for-4 on Wednesday against Matt Harvey and the Mets, Harper is batting .330 since Aug. 17. Over that 25-game stretch, he has a .388 on-base percentage, a .681 slugging percentage, eight walks and 15 extra-base hits in 105 plate appearances. It's just as good a run as the mid-May to mid-June surge that caught baseball's attention and put Harper in the All-Star Game.
In between, Harper endured a lengthy fade. From June 16 through Aug. 15, he posted a .203/.275/.288 line, with 11 extra-base hits in 237 plate appearances. Lefties were especially hard on Harper during the summer swoon. He went 12-for-91 against lefties in that time span, a .132 average.
Conventional wisdom held that Harper had been "figured out" by the league. He chased breaking balls again and again, getting out of his strike zone and looking like someone who was one adjustment behind his opponents.
"I had to make some adjustments and find some things that worked out," Harper said. "I'm just trying to have good ABs and not chase pitches from lefties or righties. It doesn't really matter [which I face]."
The other theory was that a 19-year-old was simply running out of gas in his first full big league season. Harper disputes that, and his recent play certainly backs him up.
"I played 160 games a year when I was 10 years old," he said. "I feel physically fine. I've felt fine all year."
And so he stayed in the lineup, the Nationals confident that the best course was to let him play through the tough times, even against lefties. During Harper's slide, no other Nats player had even 70 at-bats against lefties in those games, while Harper had 91. He kept playing. Harper kept learning. And Washington never wavered.
That's not an accident, nor is it due to a lack of other options. Harper is a preternatural talent, a freak of baseball. But he's also intensely determined, and he's smart. The Nationals never even considered platooning him or sitting him.
"That's a tribute to Bryce," Eckstein said. "You can expose him to more. You look at what we're doing currently, and you sit back and you go, 'This young man is very advanced and very mature for his age.' He loves being pushed. He loves being challenged. He thrives in those scenarios. That's why he's so special."
Neither Eckstein nor Harper has any desire to get too deep into the specific adjustments that Harper has made. Eckstein points to one change, though: In short, Harper is relaxing a bit.
"He's applying what he's learned and making those small adjustments," Eckstein said. "One of the ones that I've seen personally that we've talked about and have seen is just his ability to slow himself down a little bit. Everybody knows he's an aggressive hitter and attacks the baseball. That mindset really hasn't changed, but he's slowed his legs down, his lower half down. I call it smoothing the ball. He has a good mind. He makes great adjustments."
There's no guarantee Harper won't fade again. It's a constant battle, pitchers seeking out the latest weakness or hole in a hitter's swing and exploiting it, hitters making an alteration to combat the new technique. When it happens, though, you can be sure the Nats will continue playing him. And eventually, Harper will get righted.
"I don't think it was ever really a true concern of ours," Eckstein said. "Because Bryce has always been in an atmosphere where he has not only challenged himself, but he's been challenged by playing with older players. So he's always had to face that type of adversity. He's always had to face that type of challenge."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. Jane Lee contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.