Harper was expected to play a major role in the team’s quest for a World Series title this year following Washington’s disappointing loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series in 2012.
However, the Nats’ highly anticipated 2013 season never came together as expected, as the team dealt with injuries to key players such as Harper and struggled to remain relevant in the playoff race until basically the final month of the regular season.
Because Harper was expected to be the driving force behind the team’s success this year, a big deal was made about the 21-year-old’s all-out style of play and inability to stay healthy. As a result, the relationship between Johnson and the promising outfielder became increasingly strained.
While there had always been concern about Harper’s playing style dating back to his arrival in the major leagues on April 4, 2012, it was never an issue until the outfielder ran face first into the outfield wall during a game at Dodger Stadium on May 13.
On May 26, Harper landed on the disabled list with left knee bursitis.
A little over a month later, Johnson and Harper engaged in a public disagreement after the outfielder expressed pause about beginning his rehab assignment ahead of schedule.
Johnson didn’t take kindly to Harper’s personal assessment of his own progress and potential return from the disabled list, per The Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated):
“I’ll have a conversation with him about that,” Johnson said. “When a player starts playing, it’s really up to me, what I think they need. Not up to the player. I’m always trying to do what's best for the player. But at the same time, it’s my job to know when they’re ready and when they’re not.”
After missing 31 games on the disabled list, Harper made his return to the lineup on July 1 and, in classic Harper fashion, launched a home run in his first at-bat. However, after going 0-for-18 over the next four games, Johnson was considering resting the outfielder for an entire weekend series against the San Diego Padres.
Harper, of course, wasn’t interested in riding the pine and ultimately sent a text message to Johnson telling the Nats skipper to either “play me or trade me,” according to CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman.
Johnson was quick to defuse the situation and kept his response short, saying only, “He came in and we had a nice chat. As far as I’m concerned, he’s good to go.”
While Johnson’s attempts at managing Harper’s intensity over the last two seasons was admirable, the organization hopes that newly appointed manager Matt Williams will bring out the best in the 21-year-old.
In 2012, Harper was named the National League Rookie of the Year after batting .270/.340/.477 with 98 runs scored, 57 extra-base hits (22 home runs), 59 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 139 games. More significantly, the then-19-year-old played a vital role in the club’s 98-win campaign and playoff berth as NL East champions.
This season, Harper was limited to only 118 games due to injury and never posted the superstar-like numbers that everyone expected. That being said, it’s not as though his sophomore campaign was a failure by any means. Harper was still productive when in the lineup, batting .274/.368/.486 with 20 home runs and 58 RBI in 497 plate appearances.
However, the ball is now in Williams’ court in terms of furthering Harper’s physical and mental development during the 2014 season and beyond.
Though Williams lacks experience in the role, the first-time manager is confident that he can help the two-time All-Star maximize his potential and become an elite player.
In his introductory press conference last Friday, Williams discussed what it means to have Harper on his team as well as his plans for the outfielder moving forward, via Nats Insider:
“I’m here to help him,” Williams said. “I’m here to help him become the MVP and a Hall of Fame player. I want that for him. I want him to be that guy. I want him to be our leader. I want him to be the star that everybody wants him to be.”
“You just have to understand it, and that’s my job: to understand what Bryce does, understand the microscope he’s under,” Williams said. “It’s not easy being Bryce Harper. Who wouldn’t want to be Bryce? But it’s not easy. I understand that side of it for him.”
In general, Williams was highly complimentary of the 21-year-old’s approach to the game and overall demeanor:
“I love it, I love the way he plays the game. He plays the game the way it should be played,” Williams said. “He is all-out, every day, all the time, every game. He’s paid for it by getting injured and running into walls.”
Williams has no intentions of taming Harper or forcing him to become something he’s not. Instead, he wants to create an environment that will be conducive to the outfielder’s emergence as one of the sport’s best players, if not the best player:
“Now can we be a little smarter sometimes? Sure. And not necessarily run into that wall? Of course,” he said. “But the kid’s 21 years old. Let him go – this is a stallion. This is a guy that is ready to just explode. We’re going to try to give him the game plan to do that.”
While Williams’ handling of Harper next season will be endlessly dissected by the media as it was under Davey Johnson’s watch in each of the past two years, the Nats’ new skipper is already embracing the challenge.
Though time will dictate whether the change in leadership ultimately fosters Harper’s development as a superstar, it’s certainly encouraging that Williams is saying all the right things and seemingly eager to impart his wisdom.