Bryce Harper got off to about as good of a start to his Philadelphia Phillies career as one could have possibly envisioned. Harper, while donning Phillie Phanatic cleats, didn’t hit a home run in his first game in red pinstripes. That was fine, though, because over the next three games, the six-time All-Star hit three home runs, drove in five RBIs and walked three times.
It’s hard to look at Harper’s first month with the Phillies and view it as unsuccessful. He finished April with six home runs, 20 RBIs and 23 walks. He posted the first five-hit game of his career on April 19 in Colorado. And, most importantly, the Phillies finished April in first place in a crowded National League East.
Still, it’s hard to ignore that after going 0-4 on the first game of May, Harper’s batting average has dipped to .231. Harper has just two hits in his last 20 at-bats and only nine hits in his last 50 at-bats. He heard his first legitimate boos from Phillies fans in Tuesday’s loss to the Detroit Tigers, a game where he went 0-4 with two strikeouts and a rather inexcusable error in right field.
All that said, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler, in his second year the helm of the club, was asked Thursday about his concern level over Harper’s first prolonged slump with the Phillies. As it turns out, Kapler’s concern level is non-existent.
“I’m not concerned at all,” Kapler said Thursday morning to Angelo Cataldi on SportsRadio 94 WIP. “I mean, obviously, I feel for Bryce because I know that all he wants is to produce for this city. But if you look at the story of his career, he’s had some hot streaks, he’s had some cold streaks. At the end of the year, he’s always one of the most productive offensive players in the league.”
One of the things that made Harper such a difficult player to project when he hit the open market was because, as Kapler said, while he’s shown flashes of being a historically dominant offensively player, he’s yet to put together a stretch of consecutive all-time great seasons. He’s still just 26, so the Phillies banked on getting Harper’s best years when they signed him to a 13-year/$330 million deal in March. Harper has only had a few rough weeks, so it’s far too early to look at this as a disappointing first-half of baseball. ZIPS still projects that Harper will hit 31 home runs, drive in 88 runs and post a 4.3 fWAR. That may be seen as underwhelming by the standards of Harper, but it would be an All-Star caliber season that doesn’t take into account the effect players like Rhys Hoskins and Jean Segura have had from hitting around him in the lineup.
At the same time, most of the extended cold streaks in Harper’s career haven’t come because he just went cold, they’ve come because he was playing through an injury. A year after a historically dominant 2015 season that saw him win the National League MVP, Harper batted just .243 with 24 home runs in 506 at-bats in 2016. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated later reported that a shoulder injury kept Harper from being able to even lift weights for more than half of the season. Though he hit 23 home runs, walked 78 times and was a starter in the All-Star Game, Harper hit just .214 prior to the All-Star Break in 2018. There were later suggestions that he hadn’t fully recovered from a knee hyperextension he had suffered in August of the previous season.
The last two healthy halves of baseball Harper has played, he’s done so at a Hall of Fame caliber. The aforementioned knee hyperextension likely cost him his second National League MVP in three seasons in 2017, as he had slashed .325/.431/.590 with 20 home runs and 65 RBIs in the first-half of the season. After struggling – by his standards, at least – prior to the All-Star Break a season ago, he slashed .300/.434/.538 with 11 home runs, 46 RBIs and 52 walks after the midsummer classic.
Harper is seemingly healthy now, and his start led you to believe he was going to put together the type of season that would allow him to compete for the National League MVP award in 2019. Over the past few weeks, the narrative has shifted from that to whispers – mostly coming from national outlets – about whether Harper will pan out in Philadelphia.
The former No. 1 overall pick did go 0-4 for the second consecutive night in Wednesday’s 7-3 victory over the Tigers. For just the fourth time this season, Harper didn’t reach base once in the game. But Kapler says that Wednesday night was a case of Harper hitting into bad luck.
“Last night was a good indication that you can’t always control the outcomes. First at-bat of the game, he absolutely destroyed the ball right at somebody, 108 miles per hour on the ground. He made an adjustment the next couple of at-bats; one ball to left-center field on a line – smoked – and then his last at-bat of the day, he just missed putting a ball into the seats in left field. He’s coming around, it’s getting better, he’s got the right mindset – he’s about as tough mentally as anybody that I’ve ever been around, and he’s going to be just fine.”
One of the things that made some executives more comfortable with giving a historic deal to Harper over Manny Machado – even if they thought Machado was the better all-around player in the present moment – was because there was never a question of whether a lucrative contract would at all affect his approach. As the sports world waited for signs of cracks in his new relationship with Philadelphia fans after he heard some boos Tuesday, Harper simply responded by admitting that he probably would have booed himself if he was in the crowd.
Harper’s ability to hold himself accountable is what makes Kapler so certain that this slump will blow over, rather than defining his first season with the Phillies.
“He does not like to go through struggles. He’s not nonchalant about it. He’s working his ass off, and there’s no question in my mind that he’s going to pull himself out [of this slump].
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