What Bryce Harper Must Do to Turn Around the Nationals' Season

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What Bryce Harper Must Do to Turn Around the Nationals' Season

Bryce Harper's primary directive following his return from the disabled list is one that he might want to get tattooed on his forehead. Or maybe stitched on the surface of his glove. Just in case.

"DON'T RUN INTO WALLS, DUMMY."

After that, Harper's next order of business is to just be himself.

Because, really, that's all it's going to take for him to rescue the Washington Nationals from a disappointing season. They may be 42-40 and six games out of first in the NL East, but the situation Harper is returning to is not as dire as you might think.

In the event that you missed the news, the Nationals made it official on Monday. After missing the entire month of June with a bad knee, Harper is back:

No need to tell the Nationals what they're getting. They have a pretty good idea.

"He is almost a villain on the road. It's fun having him back," said Dan Haren to Bill Ladson of MLB.com. "I think the team will feed off that energy and be dying to get back."

And here's this from Jordan Zimmermann:

Bryce is a big part of this team. Our lineup hasn't been 100 percent all year. He is a great hitter, great defender. It's definitely good to get him back. He's definitely young and has a lot of learning to do. He is a an energetic player and he is going to give it his all every time out. That's all you can ask for.

Well said, fellas. In Harper, the Nationals are indeed getting a spark plug who will give them a boost both offensively and defensively.

Giving the Nationals a boost defensively is essentially a matter of Harper being the lesser of several evils. The Nats used a combination of Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore in left field during Harper's absence. According to FanGraphs, none of the three established himself as a difference-making defender. 

Harper himself wasn't in the middle of a brilliant defensive season, mind you, as he racked up zero Defensive Runs Saved and actually had a minus-2.3 UZR as a left fielder. But we know from the 10.4 UZR and 13 DRS he racked up in center field last year that he has the athleticism to handle left field, and his arm is a perfect fit for a corner-outfield spot.

But enough about that. Let's get to the good stuff, which is the kind of difference Harper can and will make on offense for the Nationals.

At the time Harper went down, he was leading the Nationals in most offensive categories. Here we are several weeks later, and Harper is still leading the Nationals in most offensive categories.

Harper has a .287 batting average, a .386 on-base percentage and a .587 slugging percentage. The next-best batting average among Nats regulars is .276. The next-best OBP is .357. The next-best slugging percentage is .508. Harper's .973 OPS is 150 points higher than the next guy's.

Even more amazing is this: Though Harper hasn't played since May 26, he's still tied for second on the Nationals in home runs with Adam LaRoche. Both have a dozen to Ian Desmond's 15.

That gives you an idea just how good Harper was doing before his knee acted up on him. He was far and away Washington's best offensive player. If he picks up where he left off, Washington's offense will be better.

And now for what that entails...

Even with Harper at his best, the Nationals offense wasn't very good. From the start of the season through his last game before going on the DL, the Nats only averaged 3.46 runs per game. 

For a little while afterwards, it was worse. In the 10 games the Nats played between May 27 and June 8, they averaged 3.10 runs per game. The writing was on the wall in big bold letters that Washington's offense was doomed to be a disaster as long as Harper was out.

If that were still the case today, we'd be talking about a situation much more dire than 42-40 and a six-game deficit. In that case, we'd be talking about Harper having to make up for lost time with a hot stretch for the ages. Only with one of those could he rescue the Nats from their peril.

But things have changed. The offense Harper is returning to is still not a great offense, but it's ceased to be a helpless offense. 

Brian Garfinkel/Getty Images

In their last 21 games, the Nationals have averaged 4.33 runs. That's close to a run higher than their average output while Harper was healthy. And while 4.33 runs per game isn't elite, it's right around where the Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds, two very good teams, have been all season.

Don't be so surprised. The Nationals always had the goods to put together a stretch like this, even without Harper. They averaged 4.85 runs per game in the second half of the 2012 season with many of the same guys they have this season. The talent was always there. It was the production that was missing.

In recent weeks, it's finally turned up.

Desmond had a .743 OPS at the end of May. In June, he posted a .988 OPS with nine home runs.

Ryan Zimmerman's OPS fell as low as .773 when play ended on June 11. Over his last 18 games, he has a .956 OPS and three home runs.

Jayson Werth had a .674 OPS when play came to a close on June 14. He has a 1.041 OPS in his last 14 games with three home runs.

LaRoche saw his OPS go as low as .735 on June 17. He has a 1.068 OPS with a pair of homers in his last 11 games. 

Even Denard Span has picked it up. In his last 11 games, he's a .326 hitter with four doubles and a triple out of 14 hits.

The extra production has made a difference. In the first 10 games the Nationals played without Harper, they went 3-7. In the last 21, they've gone 12-9. Not much when you first look at it, but that's a .571 winning percentage. The Nats had a .568 winning percentage when Harper played. They were decent with him, and they found a way to be decent without him.

Logic thus brings us to the following conclusion: Now that the Nats have their best offensive player back, they should be better than decent.

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An optimistic-but-not-far-fetched expectation is something like 4.50 runs per game the rest of the way, which is precisely where the Nats' offense was in 2012. Offensive production like that would be an explosion relative to what the offense has done in 2013 as a whole, and it would be more than good enough for the club's pitching staff.

The Nationals have a 3.54 ERA that ranks fifth in MLB. Their starters have a 3.56 ERA that ranks sixth, a number much more reflective of the rotation's quality than its 27-30 record. That's the result of bad run support, which won't be as much of a problem down the stretch now that the club's best hitter is joining a lineup that has already been starting to click.

And remember, it's not as if the Nationals are facing a long road ahead. Their six-game deficit in the NL East is less than what the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies made up in only 18 days, and they're only 4.5 games behind the Reds in the wild-card picture. These would be the same Reds who are suddenly reeling with losses in seven of their last 10 games.

Had things gone according to plan for the Nationals, they'd be in first place right now and Harper would be well on his way to winning the NL MVP.

Given how many things haven't gone according to plan for them, they could be in a much worse spot than the one they find themselves in now—still in the race with their best player coming back just in time for the second half of the season.

All he has to do is be himself.

Except, of course, for the running into walls thing.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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