After 15 Grapefruit League games, Bryce Harper finally made his first start in right field in Tuesday’s 14-5 shellacking at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays. The delay could be seen as a cause for concern on the surface, but Harper was hard at work reteaching himself how to throw a baseball.
Yes, a superstar outfielder had to find a new way to complete one of the most basic tasks in the sport. It’s a necessary adjustment for Harper, who dealt with a nagging back injury in the second-half of the shortened 2020 season.
It was a problem he caught on his own. He’s been throwing across his body from a young age. As he ages, Harper is forced to experiment with the optimal way to relieve stress on his lower back, shoulders, legs and elbows.
It can be argued that the back injury derailed an MVP campaign in 2020. Harper cites the late-August series in Atlanta where his back became a problem. Prior to the series, he slashed .317/.457/.634 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs. He finished the season with a .247/.411/.505 slash line from Aug. 31 to Sept. 27 and while that’s still impressive, he fell out of the race for the award. He admitted that he was unable to throw a baseball by the end of last season.
Harper noted earlier this spring that the biggest adjustment had to do with his legs. As Girardi notes below, Harper realigned his feet so that he doesn’t have to throw his right leg back and transfer energy from his lower back and hips counterclockwise to throw the baseball back towards the diamond.
“I feel strong. I feel good,” Harper said on Tuesday. “I just need to watch myself on certain things when I am out there so I don’t put stress in the bad area.”
If you can recall, Harper was a catcher prior to being drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals in 2010. The goal was to get Harper to the big leagues as soon as possible, so a position change was necessary. While going over the film this offseason, Harper came to the conclusion that he still threw like a catcher trying to catch a runner stealing.
When Harper arrived at Phillies camp for the first time two years ago, the outfielder went to work on his defense. In his final season in Washington, Harper posted a career-worst -24 defensive runs saved while splitting time between right and center field. He’s not the biggest fan of advanced statistics, but it was obvious to him that something had to be done.
His numbers in the field took a hit in 2020 due to the back injury, but in 2019, Harper was a Gold Glove finalist. The right fielder ranked second in baseball with 13 outfield assists that season. He credits much of his success to outfield instructor and first-base coach Paco Figueroa.
“He keeps me in it every single day,” Harper said. “He understand what I need to do and how to get better. I owe lots to [Figueroa] because he finally was the first coach that really has taught me how to play a position other than catcher and third base. It’s been good to be able to work with him. I actually thanked him at the beginning of camp because he does give me a lot of opportunity to get better.”
Harper’s health will be monitored closely in both the short and long-term. Including this season, Harper has about five to six years left of prime production that the team needs to maximize. The Phillies superstar, who has stressed a sense of urgency to win now this season, understands how high the stakes are and has made it a priority to proactively address anything that could get in his way of leading the Phillies back to October.
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