It was rough for a while there, but it looks like our long Nationals nightmare may finally be over.
Yes, Bryce Harper looks like he's back.
In the event that you've been distracted by other things—icky, icky goo on Michael Pineda's hand, perhaps—Harper woke up in Washington's three-game sweep of the Miami Marlins this week. The 21-year-old star went 4-for-11 with a walk and four RBI.
Three of those four RBI came on a titanic blast into the upper deck at Nationals Park on Wednesday night. Because it was fun to watch then, let's watch it again:
In addition to a fun sight, that was a welcome sight after what Harper had gone through in his first five games of 2014. That stretch included just three hits in 21 at-bats (a .143 average) and a Mark Reynolds-esque 10 strikeouts in 22 overall plate appearances.
The capper was an 0-for-4 night against the Atlanta Braves on April 5 in which Harper struck out twice. One of those punchouts came in the eighth inning, after which Mark Zuckerman of CSN Washington says Harper "slammed his bat and helmet down the dugout tunnel and let out a primal scream."
Said Harper after the fact, via Zuckerman: “I mean, I’m pretty lost right now, actually. I’m trying to see where my swing’s at, watch video of where my hands are. I’m trying everything right now. We’ll see where I’m at tomorrow. Give pops a call and see what he says, also.”
There's Explanation No. 1 for Harper's struggles: He was just plain out of whack.
Here's another explanation from Washington manager Matt Williams, via James Wagner of The Washington Post:
It’s just a question of him being a little off timing and hitting the pitch that he ordinarily hits. Because he’s got a lot of those and he’s fouling them back. What do you do in that regard? You keep putting him in there because eventually it’s going to turn. And when it does, it’s special. Just keep trying to get him opportunities.
So Explanation No. 2: Harper's timing was off in his first five games.
As most things in baseball are, these are both testimonies worth looking into. With data! And images! Both moving and still!
We can start with Williams' point about Harper's timing being off and about how he was missing pitches he doesn't usually miss. In no other place was this more evident than in Harper's performance against fastballs relative to the norm he established in 2012-2013.
Via Brooks Baseball:
What's there for four-seamers is alarming across the board, as Harper started the season off fouling them off and swinging through them much more often than he did in 2012 and 2013. It's no wonder the production wasn't there.
The numbers for sinkers are less alarming, but only to a degree. Harper was swinging through them in his first five games a lot more often, and his production against them was about as bad as his production against four-seamers.
Bad timing would be a good explanation for this, and you can see bad timing in action if you watch Harper strike out on fastballs from Zack Wheeler at the 10- and 45-second marks here:
Granted, it's not like Wheeler is some soft-tosser. He throws in the mid-90s. But by Harper standards, those were definitely weak swings.
There's also the fact that Harper didn't use the exact same swing mechanics on both pitches. With the first fastball, his timing device was a big leg kick:
With the second fastball, Harper's timing device was more of a toe tap:
This isn't entirely out of the ordinary for Harper. The leg kick is his usual timing device, but Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus noted in 2012 that Harper does "occasionally" use the toe tap. Miller's best guess was that Harper uses it when he's anticipating offspeed, which is a good guess.
As we'll see in a moment, it's plausible that the leg-kick-or-toe-tap conundrum was one of the symptoms of Harper being "lost" in the early goings. James Wagner, however, made a much simpler observation following a Harper single off Marlins starter Henderson Alvarez on Tuesday:
In spring & early this season, Bryce Harper rested bat on his shoulder before swing. Today, held it high like before. Hit single to left.— James Wagner (@JamesWagnerWP) April 9, 2014
Once again, we can go to some photographic evidence to illustrate the point.
Plucked from the highlights of Julio Teheran's start against the Nationals from April 5, here's Harper with the bat on his shoulder as Teheran is preparing to deliver the ball:
And here's Harper with the bat off his shoulder as Alvarez was prepared to deliver the ball that Harper would line to left field for a single:
Perhaps this is what Ron Harper, he of the wicked cutter, noticed when Harper put in a call to his dad. And even if it's mental more than physical, little things like this can make a big difference for a hitter.
Another thing that can make a big difference for a hitter is not trying to pull everything and being willing to use the opposite field.
His monstrous home run to right field aside, TexasLeaguers.com can show that Harper did a much better job of this against the Marlins:
Compared to before:
Between the placement of Harper's bat before the pitch and the way in which he's been going the other way, two apparent early-season issues appear to have been solved against Miami.
That just leaves the whole leg-kick-or-toe-tap conundrum and the issue of hitting fastballs, and this article wouldn't exist if there weren't positives on both fronts.
The fastball issue definitely wasn't a problem against the Marlins. Three of the four hits Harper picked up in the series came against fastballs. One was his home run off Brad Hand, and the others were scorching line-drive singles off of Alvarez and Tom Koehler. That, indeed, is more like Harper.
The other hit Harper collected was off a slider thrown by Marlins lefty Dan Jennings. If Miller's guess about Harper's toe tap being typical of him anticipating offspeed, it's a good sign that he was able to hit that slider using his leg kick as his timing mechanism:
For the record, Harper also used the leg kick for his single off Alvarez:
His homer off Hand:
And his single off Koehler:
It's only a three-game series we're talking about, and only four hits at that. I'll admit that it would be a lot easier to make a case for Harper being out of his season-opening slump if he had gone something like 10-for-12 with four jacks or whatever.
However, the process of a hitter getting out of a slump doesn't need to last as long as the actual slump. Sometimes all it takes is a flip of a couple switches, and said switches can be flipped all at once.
It appears that's what happened with Harper in the last few days. It's good enough that he picked up one more hit in three games than he had in five games coming in, and even better that he got them while fixing various issues that played a role in his slow start.
Which is a scary thought for the competition. As things stand now, Harper isn't one of the five regulars in Washington's lineup with an OPS over .800. If he's ready to live up to his enormous talent, trying to get through the Nationals lineup unscathed is going to be like trying to get through a barbwired jungle gym unscathed.
And from the looks of things, Harper is indeed ready.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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