Bryce Harper continued to torture the St. Louis Cardinals this past weekend, going 4-7 with two walks and a 425-foot home run in Sunday’s Philadelphia Phillies win. The home run landed in the second deck without the same type of violence in his swing that fans loved about him as a superstar in his early 20s.
The lack of torque in his swing wasn’t an accident. Harper’s back bothered him so much late in the 2020 season that he couldn’t even throw a ball by the end of the season. You started to see the former National League MVP use a much more controlled swing late in the 2020 season, and have success doing it. In fact, Joe Girardi says that the Phillies prefer Harper to have less motion in his load-up.
“I think it’s something that he’s talked about doing,” Girardi said Monday. “I know for Bryce – in talking to Joe Dillon about him a lot – [that] when he is under control is when he’s at his best in a sense. There is less torque, and that’s probably when he’s using the whole field. He doesn’t really need to add anything to hit a home run. So, I think when you see that, his swing is right. And that’s a really good thing.”
There’s more at play here, though. When word began to circulate in November of 2018 that Harper, a free agent, was seeking 13 years or longer, we wondered how his back would hold up given the violence that he swings with. At least to some degree, those concerns have to be heightened a few years later. Harper is 6-7 since being off Saturday to manage some back tightness. But to be at the point in year three of a 13-year deal where you are beginning to have to manage his back, that has to be a cause for concern internally for the Phillies.
Physical decline is inevitable, at least some. Harper made his Major League debut when he was 19, and has a contract that runs through his age-38 season. But are there ways hold off that decline as long as possible? Absolutely. Occasional off days and increased preparation off the field may prove to be crucial in having Harper age as well as possible. As much as fans may like it, there’s something to be said for playing a less reckless style, or at least picking your spots. That may mean not trying to take the extra base sometimes or laying out for a ball that you’re a longshot to catch.
The fortunate thing here is that Harper appears increasingly aware of changes that he needs to make. Does Girardi believe that Harper’s realizing that he’s now in his late-20s, and his body has more limitations than it did when he was a teenager on the Washington Nationals?
“I hope so,” Girardi said with a smile. “I tried to remind him [of that] the other day – I tried to remind him to be smart on the bases. Because Bryce has always been a guy that’s played all-out, 100% all the time. And you love that about players, but there are certain walls that are immovable…there are certain things that you do that are sometimes are a bigger risk than reward. So, that’s part of aging and maturing, and I think he’s figuring that out.”
Some of these adjustments in how Harper plays might have multiple benefits. Early in his career, he was an excellent baserunner. But while many players peak in their late-20s, your pure athleticism probably peaks in your early 20s. For example, Harper posted 5.8 base running runs above average between 2015 and 2016, his age-22 and 23 seasons. But over his first two years with the Phillies, Harper was worth -1.2 base running runs above average. Not always trying to take the extra base may not only be the smart move for helping to keep Harper healthy, it may just be the smart move period at this stage of his career.
For Harper, it’s going to be a balance, like it was at a certain point for Chase Utley. He’s never going to stop playing hard, but sometimes playing at 100%, as opposed to 110%, is OK. He doesn’t want to lose what’s made him such a popular player in Philadelphia, but he also wants to age as gracefully as possible.
“Consistency is key, right? Really going out there and trying to be consistent with my work and what I do on a daily basis in the batter’s box. I definitely need to be a little bit smarter with how I play,” Harper said Sunday. “It [tweaking his back] happened on the ball I feel like in right-center when I jammed it into second base pretty hard. Most three-hole hitters or four-hole hitters don’t really go to second base on that. But you guys know how I play – I enjoy playing the game…I enjoy playing hard…getting that extra base for the guy behind me and things like that.
“So I think definitely being a little bit smarter on the field, but also being smarter and more cautious off the field [is what I need to do]. Like Joe said, they usually have to fight me to get me out of my uniform, because I do enjoy playing and the Phillie fans deserve that…this organization deserves that. But also, they put value on days off as well now. So if I can get the rest that I need – once or twice a month – and then get us into September, I think it’s definitely a smart call, but definitely a tough one for me.”
One way or another, you get the sense that this will be a turning point in Harper’s career. He has 10 years remaining on his $330 million contract after 2021. He’s 265 home runs away from 500. He seems to understand that if he wants to be productive for as long as possible, it’s going to take some adjustments beginning now.
“…Like I said, I want to be more cautious of the way that I play, understanding what I can do out there and things that I could do when I was 22 but probably can’t do when I’m 28 now, or vice versa. So, I just gotta be a little bit more smart…a little bit more cautious when I do feel something.”
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