IT’S LATE MORNING in late January in the desert. Sunrise Mountain stands guard beyond the right-center-field fence, but the craggy sentry is failing to protect Harper Field from Mother Nature’s heavy breathing.
With temps in the 40s and the wind chill well below that, it’s hardly baseball weather. Nevertheless, Bryce Harper stands in the batter’s box on the same Las Vegas High School diamond where he once dominated, the diamond that now bears his name. Cut after cut after cut, he spends upward of two hours focusing on the little things. Keeping the launch angle down. Getting to the inside pitch.
The occasional spectator stops by — a coach or two, some current varsity players — in hopes of witnessing a tape-measure shot from one of the most powerful hitters alive.
Instead, they leave disappointed, having seen little more than tee work and soft toss. Because Bryce Harper isn’t here to do damage. He’s here to undo damage.
It takes moxie to do what Harper did last April. Fresh off his monster 2015 season, the reigning MVP knew full well that all eyes would be on him come Opening Day. As if that weren’t enough, he homered in his first at-bat of 2016. Still, he stood there postgame in front of his locker in Atlanta and donned a goofy-looking trucker cap with an even goofier-looking — and decidedly anti-establishment — message: Make Baseball Fun Again.
As hat tricks go, it was a doozy — if for no other reason than he went right out and made good on it. Real good. But after a ridiculous April fun run that saw Harper launch his 100th big league bomb, hit his first two career slams and receive the key to the nation’s capital, the fun turned into a funk — one that lasted clear through to October.
So now he’s sweating the small stuff. “It’s not just a home run show,” says Sam Thomas, who coached Harper in high school. “He’s working on the things he didn’t do well.”
But the truth is, it’s virtually impossible for Harper to work on the one thing that caused him the most trouble last year. Because how do you replicate the crushing weight of gargantuan expectations? How do you break a seemingly interminable slump that came out of nowhere? Short of flying the world champs in for a four-game midwinter donnybrook at Harper Field, how do you simulate the impossibly frustrating feeling of getting Maddonized?
THE THEORY GOES that everything that ailed Bryce Harper last season — ground zero for his grounding — can be traced back to the first weekend in May, when the Washington Nationals visited Wrigley Field for a four-game series against the Chicago Cubs. It was about as important as May baseball gets — a potential National League Championship Series preview between the teams with the two best records in the majors, featuring Harper, the reigning player of the month. At least, that was the billing. Instead, the series featured Chicago skipper Joe Maddon totally neutralizing the slugger.
Over a span of four days against the Cubs, Harper stepped to the plate 19 times and received 13 free passes. Four of them were intentional, including three in the finale, when he tied a major league record by walking six times and became the first player ever to reach safely in all seven plate appearances of a game without recording a hit (he got plunked in his other PA). Of the 27 pitches Harper saw in the finale, he swung at exactly zero. Only two were even in the strike zone. Overall for the series, of the 83 pitches that came his way, only 18 were in the zone, for a rate of 22 percent. For comparison, that’s about half as many strikes as Harper saw during his MVP year (41 percent zone rate), when he was pitched around more often than anyone not named Joey Votto. In other words, Maddon wasn’t about to let Harper beat him or his team. And it worked. The Cubs swept the Nats right out of Chicago. In the process, they stole Harper’s soul.
“When the Cubs pitched around him, if he was someone who had greater maturity and self-control — which I think he will still develop — he would’ve said, ‘F— it, if they’re gonna walk me, I’ll take it.’ But what he did was, he started to feel like he needed to produce and be the guy.”
“Hitting is the funnest part of baseball,” Thomas says. “That was probably the first time in Bryce’s life where, for an entire series, he didn’t get the opportunity to hit, where he didn’t get the opportunity to compete. Some people look at it and say it was the greatest strategy of all time. Other people think it’s crap because you’re not competing. All I know is, when you take the bat out of somebody’s hand — especially somebody that’s as competitive as Bryce is — it’s bound to have some kind of effect.”
In Harper’s case, it caused him to boil over immediately. Well, almost immediately. On the Sunday of the Cubs series, despite the fresh sting of emasculation still smoldering within, Harper somehow managed to rise above, giving a jar full of money to a homeless woman he spotted as the team bus was pulling out of Wrigley. But soon after that, he sank below.
On the very next day after the Chicago series — after standing there all weekend long with the bat on his shoulder and watching helplessly while his team got the broom — Harper blew a gasket and got ejected in the ninth inning of a tie game in Washington. But wait, there’s more. When the Nats won in extras on a walk-off, Harper defied the rules by not only coming back onto the field, but also barking a few “choice words” (as he would later call them) at the umpire, all of which led to the first suspension of his career.
Over the next couple of weeks, with opposing teams seemingly copying Maddon’s blueprint, Harper saw barely anything to hit. In the eight games following the Cubs series, he drew another 15 free passes, giving him an unreal total of 28 walks over a 12-game stretch. It got so bad that practically the only pitches Harper got to hit during the entire month weren’t even real ones.
MAYBE YOU’VE SEEN the commercial. It’s an UnderArmour spot called “Numbers,” which Harper filmed the day after his suspension in May and which dropped right before the All-Star Game in July. In it, Harper stands in the batter’s box of a nondescript stadium, all grimy and grunting, taking violent hack after violent hack while a series of digits flash across the screen. Atop the repeated sound of bat tearing into ball, a gritty voiceover talks about how baseball is a numbers game. The voice then proceeds to spew forth a bunch of stats — some of which Harper has already compiled, some of which he’s chasing — then finishes by saying, “Kid, just remember: No number sounds as good as this.” The punchline: One last thunderous crack of the bat.
Back in the real world, not long after his Wrigley Field walk-a-thon, Harper appeared to lose the otherworldly patience he’d demonstrated over the previous 13 months. Gone was the spit-on-it selectiveness that had been the bedrock of his MVP campaign and that had onlookers comparing him to Barry Bonds. In short, getting Maddonized wrecked him.
“He’s so f—ing competitive,” says one National League exec. “Almost to a detriment. When the Cubs pitched around him, if he was someone who had greater maturity and self-control — which I think he will still develop — he would’ve said, ‘F— it, if they’re gonna walk me, I’ll take it.’ But what he did was, he started to feel like he needed to produce and be the guy.”
Instead of being the guy, he became just a guy. At first, folks wrote it off as an ordinary slump. After all, Harper had always been a streaky hitter, and MVPs don’t just suddenly go in the tank. But bad days begat bad weeks, which begat bad months, which begat … Oh my god what the heck is wrong with Bryce Harper? From May 9 — the day after the Cubs series — through the end of the regular season, a span of 116 games, Harper hit just .238 (135th out of 148 qualified batters) while posting a .395 slugging percentage (127th) and a .752 OPS (101st). And it wasn’t like he was hitting the ball on the screws and just getting unlucky. He seemed like a shell of his superstar self.
“I saw a lot of moving parts in his swing that aren’t always there when he’s going good,” says the NL exec. “He was over-rotating and trying to create power instead of staying compact and working through.”
“He was pulling off the ball,” says one longtime scout. “When you see a hitter do that, they’re going for the home runs more than the hits. He was overcompensating and looking for the fastball, which made it hard for him to handle the breaking ball. The patience and the discipline weren’t quite the same, and he certainly didn’t stay in on left-handers as well as he did previously. They caused him a lot more problems than I’d ever seen. It was a trying year for Bryce.”
It was such a trying year that in September, when reports surfaced that Harper had been dealing with an undisclosed injury for much of the year, it was hard not to buy in. Impossible, even. After all, it’s one thing to become a little itchy at the plate. But it’s quite another when, at the ripe old age of 23, your power suddenly goes poof.
“Obviously there was an issue,” agent Scott Boras says. “Lots of great athletes play through things, and Bryce Harper is no different. That’s what he chose for his team. I just let the statistics do the talking.”
“Hitting is the funnest part of baseball. That was probably the first time in Bryce’s life where, for an entire series, he didn’t get the opportunity to hit, where he didn’t get the opportunity to compete. Some people look at it and say it was the greatest strategy of all time. Other people think it’s crap because you’re not competing. All I know is, when you take the bat out of somebody’s hand — especially somebody that’s as competitive as Bryce is — it’s bound to have some kind of effect.”
Sam Thomas, Harper’s coach at Las Vegas High School
In case you’re wondering, the statistics say this: Harper had more home runs in April (nine) than he did in the last three months of the season combined (eight). His hard-hit rate dipped like a buffalo wing in the vicinity of ranch dressing. Even his throwing velocity dropped, to the point that he played an increasingly shallow right field as the season went on. All of which is to say that, maybe there was more to the post-MVP blues than simply getting Maddonized. Says the NL exec: “There’s no question he was injured.” Regardless of what caused the dramatic drop-off — and the most likely explanation is that it was a combination of factors — the effect was undeniable: a conspicuous lack of the F-word.
“Playing bad isn’t fun,” Nats teammate Trea Turner says. “It doesn’t matter what you’re hitting — if you’re not living up to your own expectations, then it’s hard to have fun. I think Bryce had fun from the standpoint that we won the division and went to the playoffs, but on a personal level, I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as fun as when he won the MVP.”
“Those are some tough moccasins to walk in,” adds the NL exec. “Bryce is so good, and so much has been put on him so early. Mike Trout didn’t have those expectations, but this guy did, and he’s also put a lot on himself. He wants to please everyone and he feels like he’s got something to prove. He loves when he does well, but when he doesn’t do well, it really pisses him off.”
Still, Harper appears to have moved on. At the very least, he seems to have compartmentalized. In November, he did the red-carpet thing at the American Music Awards before handing out the hardware for Best New Artist. The following month in Vegas, he rubbed elbows with the Duke hoops squad (adjusted for height, it was more like his elbows rubbing with their wrists). A week later, he tied the knot with longtime girlfriend Kayla Varner, then jetted off to Cabo for the honeymoon.
“The offseason’s a big deal for everyone,” says Turner, who was one of the guests at Harper’s wedding, “but especially for Bryce because he had such a long season filled with so much tension. He has lots of opportunities to do some really cool things, and he takes full advantage of it.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t been thinking about work too. When Washington shocked the baseball world by trading three stud pitching prospects to the White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton on the last day of the winter meetings, Harper chimed in immediately and unabashedly by tweeting simply, “Wow…”
In mid-January, rumors started circulating that even though the Nats had interest in former All-Stars Matt Wieters and Greg Holland, they were way over budget on their new spring training facility and therefore couldn’t sign them. Harper’s Twitter response? “Matt Wieters/Greg Holland > Team Store!”
In between those two tweets, shortly before New Year’s, he fired off another job post about hitting with his pops at Las Vegas High: “A lot of good memories came back to me today…”
BACK IN THE wind-chilled shadows of Sunrise Mountain, Bryce Harper punches the clock at his old stomping grounds. This is not a one-time thing — it has been a regular occurrence throughout the winter. It’s also a stark contrast from last offseason, when he worked out in relative luxury at the Boras Sports Training Institute in Southern California (he has logged some time there this winter too), and never took a single swing at Harper Field. The fact that he decided to return to his roots is no coincidence.
“He needed to get back to normalcy and feeling like he used to,” says Thomas, the high school coach. “He needed to get back to familiarity.”
Aside from Harper’s father and brother, both of whom have been regular tagalongs at Las Vegas High this winter, Thomas is about as familiar as it gets. In fact, he’s the one whose gritty pipes were featured in that UnderArmour commercial, handpicked because of his history with the star, because his voice resonates personally. It’s a voice Harper has heard regularly this winter, every time he sets foot on his high school field.
“He looks phenomenal,” Thomas says of his former player. “He looks more like himself.”