Pitchers adjust to Nationals' Harper

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

Rookie stuck in slump since All-Star break

The adjustments were coming.

Even when Nationals rookie outfielder Bryce Harper was tearing along at a fantastic clip in the heady days of May and early June -- almost matching fellow rookie Mike Trout, who is well on his way to an American League MVP trophy at age 21 with the Los Angeles Angels -- pitchers across the league were taking notes.

Don't bother throwing fastballs. The kid will just smash them. Harper has a good batting eye, but he will eventually chase soft stuff off the plate. That's apparently what has happened. Harper's OPS was .860 in May but has dropped each month: .780 in June, .619 in July and now an ugly .550 in August. He is only 19 and in his first big league season so an extended slump was likely to hit at some point. But it is a new experience for a player who has dominated at every level he's played, except at Double-A last summer when he was at least two years younger than virtually every player in the Eastern League.

The Harper file
» The Nationals rookie outfielder Bryce Harper entered Tuesday's game at San Francisco batting .251 with a .328 on-base percentage and a .405 slugging percentage. His OPS was .733.
» Harper has 10 home runs in 93 games with 16 doubles, five triples and 32 RBIs. He has also been successful on 13 of 18 stolen-base attempts.
» On June 23 -- 49 games into his career -- Harper had walked 24 times and struck out 39, a respectable ratio for any rookie. But in the 44 games since, he has struck out 45 times and walked just 18.

"The past couple games, I've been taking swings like that, but just not connecting," Harper said after an Aug. 4 win over Miami when he crushed a home run into the second deck in right field during a 10-7 win. "I've been chasing bad pitches, just trying to do a little too much."

It's easy to understand why. Harper sees just 47.4 percent fastballs, according to the website Fangraphs.com. Otherwise, pitchers have gone with sliders (20 percent), curveballs (11.8 percent) and change-ups (11.2 percent) with some sinkers (7 percent) mixed in and the occasional R.A. Dickey knuckleball (2.2 percent). Harper just isn't going to get the pitches he wants in part because opposing teams already treat him like a veteran. That's what happens when you post a .553 slugging percentage through your first 40 games as a major leaguer.

"[Harper] expects himself to hit probably .350. He said .400," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "But that's how driven he is. He's a great player. He's learning the league, learning how they're pitching him. And they're pitching him tough. But he'll be fine. I told him 'You've proven you belong up here. So try to relax.'?"

The left-handed batter has opposing managers adjusting to him, too, with one left-handed pitcher after another coming into games in relief. Harper entered Tuesday's game at San Francisco with 363 at-bats and 133 of those (36.6 percent) have been against left-handed pitchers.

Of the 49 left-handed hitters with at least 100 at-bats this season, only 11 have seen a higher percentage of those at-bats come against lefties than Harper. That list includes names like Prince Fielder, Michael Bourn, Adrian Gonzalez, Brian McCann and David Ortiz. Braves outfielder Jayson Heyward leads the majors with 41.3 percent of his at-bats vs. lefties. Harper's OPS against left-handers is .673 while it's .767 against righties.

One solution is more rest, and that is something that Johnson will provide. Harper has at times dealt with a sore back, an ugly knot on his left foot after smashing a bunt attempt off it in July and the general wear-and-tear of playing almost every game in center field. He didn't play in an Aug. 9 game at Houston last week -- his second day off in 14 games this month.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Author:

Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner