Must Bryce Harper Change His All-Out Style to Avoid Career-Threatening Injuries?
A couple weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to Bryce Harper asking him to never change. I made it clear that it involved him upholding his style of play, as Bryce Harper just isn't Bryce Harper without the Tasmanian Devil approach to the game.
I'm feeling conflicted on the matter now. In fact, I'll be damned if I don't feel a shred of responsibility for what happened to Harper on Monday night during the Washington Nationals' 6-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.
You saw it, right?
If no, you can watch it here. If yes, well, you can re-watch it here.
It was a collision as weird as it was violent. Harper just seemed to have no notion of his whereabouts and then, BAM, face met fence. When he hit the deck and the blood started to flow, it looked bad.
The good news is that it's not. Harper walked off under his own power, and the word from Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post is that Harper did not suffer a concussion. It was just a jammed left shoulder and a cut under his chin that required 11 stitches. He may only miss a game or two.
Go ahead and let out a sigh of relief, fellow Harper fans.
But now for the obligatory question, the very one that's giving me second thoughts: Does Harper need to change his style of play before he pushes his limits too far?
If you ask him, the answer is no. He'd rather not, anyway:
I will keep playing this game hard for the rest of my life even if it kills me! Ill never stop! #RespectTheGame— Bryce Harper (@Bharper3407) May 14, 2013
Deadspin's Tom Ley reacted to this by writing that Harper collided with the wall Monday night due more to recklessness than playing hard, which I can agree with. Hard as it was, it was certainly the most casual collision with an outfield wall that I can remember.
All the same, saying that Harper plays the game recklessly fits almost as well as saying that he plays the game hard. And either way, it doesn't sound like he's about to take a look in the mirror.
Because I practically begged him to never change just a couple weeks ago, that should be just fine with me. But even I realize that now's a good time for Harper to take a look in the mirror, as the month of May has been a rough one in regard to his style of play getting him in trouble.
Earlier this month, Harper suffered a lat injury when he collided with the outfield fence at Turner Field trying to rob Tim Hudson of a homer. Less than two weeks later, there he was on Monday night losing track of where he was and going face-first into Dodger Stadium's right field fence.
Harper should consider himself lucky that he didn't suffer more serious injuries. Such things have been known to happen when outfielders collide with walls.
The name everyone—i.e. Amanda Comack of the Washington Times and ESPN's Buster Olney—is bringing up on Tuesday is that of Pete Reiser. He was a promising young outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, but he sabotaged his career with his tendency to run into walls.
Mark Stewart of SABR recalled the scariest moment of Reiser's career in 1947:
Chasing a ball hit by Culley Rikard of the Pirates, Pete snagged it on the dead run an instant before slamming into the fence. He held onto the ball for the out, but fractured his skull. The injury was so bad that he was given the last rites, and he lay in a hospital bed for five days hovering between life and death.
Reiser lived, but that was pretty much it for his career. He hung around in the majors until 1952, but he never again played in over 100 games in a season.
Granted, this was before Major League Baseball realized that padded outfield fences were a good idea, but even those aren't 100 percent effective in preventing serious injuries that can linger.
Just take a look at Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp. He hurt his left shoulder colliding with an outfield wall late last season and ultimately had to have surgery on it during the offseason. He's been a wreck this season, hitting .277/.327/.348 with only one homer in 37 games.
But the question of whether Harper should tone it down obviously doesn't just concern him running into walls. It has to do with whether he's going to be able to enjoy the long, successful career that we all want him to have if he doesn't start treating his body with more care. After all, it doesn't take much to ruin an outfielder's body.
This is a matter that calls to mind other cautionary tales. Ken Griffey Jr. was beat up and pretty much out of gas by the time he hit his early 30s. Ditto Andruw Jones, whose last truly great season came at the age of 29 in 2006.
Then you have guys like Jim Edmonds and Aaron Rowand.
Edmonds lasted pretty long for a guy who was always tossing himself around like a rag doll in the outfield, but his career also started later relative to Griffey and Jones. Rowand, who once broke his face in a collision with an outfield wall in 2006, got to a point where he was constantly dealing with nagging injuries. He's been out of baseball since 2011, which was only his age-33 season.
Harper is more talented than Edmonds and Rowand ever were, and he's at least as talented as Griffey and Jones were at his age (high praise, indeed). But he's no more indestructible than any of them ever were, and goodness knows that he's not going to get any more indestructible as he gets older.
So, what then? Is the solution here for him to start loafing around in the outfield and the basepaths, a la Manny Ramirez or later-years Barry Bonds?
Let's not go that far. Let's only go so far as to play the Plato card. What Harper requires is moderation.
For him, that involves finding a happy medium between Pete Rose, who Harper told Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated is the inspiration for his approach to the game, and Derek Jeter. Rose was able to enjoy a long, successful career despite his all-out style, and so has Jeter.
But having watched Jeter for so many years, I feel confident in saying this much: The guy picks his spots.
Jeter's extraordinary moments—such as his out-of-nowhere flip to home in 2001 and his into-the-stands catch in 2004—have tended to come not when the New York Yankees were up big or down big, but when they've been in situations when an extraordinary moment was needed.
Harper wasn't in one of those situations when he got hurt on Monday night. The Nationals were up 6-0 and Jordan Zimmermann was cruising. If ever there was a time for Harper to be playing it safe, it was then.
Calling for Harper to embrace moderation feels lame. And heck, if that's what I'm thinking, odds are you're thinking it too.
But I'm a little stuck here between very much wanting Harper to be the bat-out-of-hell player he's established himself to be and also wanting him to be the all-time great we know he has the talent to become. And since I just picked one side a couple weeks ago, I don't want to turn around and jump over to the other side now just because it's convenient.
However, I'd much rather watch a cautious and healthy Harper for many years than I would a reckless and constantly injured Harper for not enough years. I'm also assuming he'd much rather enjoy a long career than a short one.
If that requires toning it down, then so be it.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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