WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If spring training is any indication, Bryce Harper is back.
Consider an at-bat he had last week against the Mets. In the bottom of the fifth at Washington’s brand-new digs in West Palm Beach, Harper strode to the plate to face Robert Gsellman.
An inning earlier, the foreboding Florida skies that had been threatening all day finally opened up, sending thousands of fans scurrying from their seats and up to the concourse in search of shelter. When Harper dug into the box not long after, with the wet stuff still persisting, it was a mild surprise. After all, he’d already had two plate appearances on the day and the playing conditions had deteriorated to the point that, well, you could hardly blame him or the Nationals if, in the interest of preserving the body of the face of the franchise, they went the pinch-hitter route.
Instead Harper stepped in against Gsellman, the promising young sinkerballer who has been as good as any of New York’s starters this spring, and proceeded to launch a laser through the raindrops and clear over center fielder Curtis Granderson‘s head for a double. No sooner did Harper reach second base than he was lifted for a pinch runner. Let the record show he got his work in.
From the moment Harper set foot here last month, he has been all about the work. Instead of lingering at his locker like many players do and like he was more inclined to do in the past, Harper has kept his clubhouse time to a minimum, opting for, among other places, the weight room. He practically lives in a gray sweatshirt with high-cut short sleeves that pretend to cover his bulging triceps.
Between the undeniably transformed physique (he reported to camp at 230 pounds, up from 215) and the hood that seems to be perpetually pulled over his head, Harper looks less like a baseball player and more like a boxer or a wrestler. He hasn’t spoken much to the media, and when he does — like in his annual State of the Bryce address at the beginning of camp — he doesn’t say much. No “where’s my ring” comment like in 2015, no “they say the sky’s the limit, but we’ve been to the moon,” like last year. Instead he spews cliches. “Just trying to have good at-bats,” Harper told reporters after going deep twice on Monday against the Mets. “That’s the biggest thing for me, I’m trying to get good at-bats, good ABs and get out of here healthy.”
For what it’s worth, Harper looks as healthy as ever this spring. In his very first at-bat of spring training, he homered off Mets lefty Sean Gilmartin. His eight exhibition bombs are most in the majors and five more than he’d ever hit in a spring training. His .811 slugging is third in all of baseball, and he has more walks than strikeouts.
“He’s ready to start the season right now,” said manager Dusty Baker last week, a full fortnight before Opening Day.
Harper is so dialed in, even his outs have been loud.
“Every time I’m at the park, he’s hitting one on the screws, even if it’s at somebody,” said an NL scout who has watched Harper extensively this spring. “To have that kind of bat speed in mid-March, with the way the ball’s coming off — that’s what’s been impressive.”
“I don’t want to say last year was good for him, but it’s a hard game.”
Harper’s teammate Ryan Zimmerman
As noisy as Harper’s bat has been, it’s his quiet that stands out to those in his clubhouse.
“I see a calmness,” Baker said. “I see a quietness about him. You know when you have your stuff together. Nobody has to tell you.”
“It’s just a more relaxed Bryce,” said Nats hurler Gio Gonzalez of his teammate, who followed up a mind-blowing MVP season in 2015 with a decidedly disappointing 2016 campaign during which he often appeared frustrated at the plate. “He looks like a lion locked on his prey right now, just ready to pounce and kill the ball. He looks like a man on a mission. He looks more balanced.”
According to some who know him, the balance Harper has regained in his swing is a reflection of the balance he has achieved in his life.
“He got married,” said Gonzalez, who was one of the guests of honor at Harper’s December wedding. “That’s why he looks so calm, so ready, so focused. It’s not just baseball, baseball, baseball. He’s finally putting a full Bryce together. He’s gotten a little more mature, a little older.”
Not to mention a little bigger.
“The first thing I noticed,” said the scout, “was that he’s in really good shape. He looks more physical. Sometimes that takes time. People forget that he’s still a young kid.”
When you hit 42 jacks during your age-22 season — which Harper did in 2015 — that’s part of the cost of doing business. So too is the crushing weight of expectations, which might have contributed to last year’s fall from grace. It’s a burden that, judging by the Instagram pic of the 500-pound deadlift he posted in January, Harper is ready to bear.
“He did a lot of good work in the weight room,” first baseman Clint Robinson said. “It doesn’t look bulky and bound up. It just looks very strong. He’s still just 24. He’s getting man strength to go along with the hard work in the weight room. You see a pretty big dude.”
Which is apparently not all that different from a pretty motivated dude.
“I don’t want to say last year was good for him,” says veteran Ryan Zimmerman, “but it’s a hard game.”
In other words, as tough a season as 2016 was for Harper, it was a reality check that — based on early returns — appears to be paying dividends. For proof look no further than those eight exhibition homers Harper has blasted, one more than he hit in his previous three spring trainings combined. Clearly, last year left a bitter taste.
“Sometimes adversity can swing your career,” the scout said. “Sometimes when you’re young, it’s good to come off a really good year and then struggle, because you look back at how you prepared and that can be a driving point. Even for a guy like Bryce, who was an MVP player, sometimes it takes a little bump in the road to turn you back to where you were.”
Whether or not Harper — who won Player of the Month honors in April 2016 before crashing back to earth — can hang onto his Grapefruit groove is another story. The good news is, at least he has his groove back.
“He’s just getting back to what made him good in the first place,” Robinson said. “He’s just going out and taking what the pitchers give him. He’s getting back to being Bryce Harper.”