“But anyone who thinks that is old,” Manager Davey Johnson told me last week, without any hint of playfulness in his tone or expression. “That’s just old people talking, because 19-year-olds don’t get tired.”
Agreed. Lack of energy generally isn’t among the biggest problems teenagers face. Also, Harper plays baseball for a living. It’s not as if he has a nine-to-five-construction gig.
Nationals fans concerned about Harper’s drop in production since the all-star break (and judging from sports-talk radio and Internet message boards, there are quite a few of you out there) won’t find answers in studying physiology. It’s a matter of physics. Swinging too early or too late at curveballs, change-ups and fastballs thrown by the best pitchers in the world could make anyone appear to be in need of a long break. But substantial time off is the last thing Harper should get. It’s definitely not what he wants.
Harper and the Nationals are handling his unusual situation (few players Harper’s age reach the big leagues) correctly. In order for Harper to reach his cathedral-ceiling potential, he has to play. The left-handed power hitter must face the game’s toughest lefties to improve at hitting their off-speed stuff. Film study alone won’t do it. And when Harper does need an occasional day off (“For a mental break here and there,” Johnson says), Johnson will make sure he stays put in the dugout.
To succeed in Major League Baseball, players must constantly make adjustments. When scouts reveal their weaknesses at the plate, players review video of their swings to identify issues and put in extra time at the batting cage to address them. Pitchers add pitches to their repertoire and refine the ones on which they’ve relied.
Then there are the individual battles between batters and pitchers that play out during every at-bat, in every inning of every game. A pitcher may throw a knee-buckling curveball to strike out a batter — and later give up a walk-off homer to the same batter, who made a good adjustment after seeing the pitch previously in a game.
Harper is learning the hard way — and the only way — that “I have to try to be as patient as I can,” he said. “Draw my walks and not get too jumpy at times.”
Entering the four-day all-star break, Harper was batting .282 with an .826 on-base plus slugging percentage. But in 82 at-bats since play resumed, Harper, who sat out Friday’s front end of a doubleheader against the Miami Marlins, has only 15 hits for a .183 batting average. Of his nine home runs, Harper has hit only one in his last 121 at-bats. His overall batting average and OPS have dropped to .258 and .750.
“He has to figure out how they’re going to pitch him. That’s the adjustment right now,” Johnson said. From Johnson’s conversations with friends throughout the game, he has learned that opponents “have spent more time on figuring out how to pitch him than probably any other player on my ballclub.