Slumping Free Agent-to-Be Bryce Harper Picking the Wrong Year for a Letdown

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2018

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper reacts after he lined out during the second inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Saturday, June 23, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

There's never a good time to be hovering near the Mendoza Line. But there is a worst time, and Bryce Harper has chosen it.

Entering play Monday, the Washington Nationals star was hitting a scant .216. On Sunday, he went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in a 13-inning loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, Harper also drew a pair of free passes. His on-base percentage is a respectable .366. He's hit 20 home runs. A scan of his stat sheet yields some positive signs.

Overall, though, he hasn't walked, talked, quacked or hit like Bryce Harper. Considering he's in a contract year, that's bad for the Nats' chances of finally advancing past the division series and worse for Harper's bank account.

In April, Harper hit .241. In May, he hit .221. In June, that figure fell to .188. The trend is as clear as it is disturbing.

If his statistical wound needed salt, it was sprinkled liberally by an unnamed National League executive.

"He's simply overrated," the executive told Robert Murray of FRS Sports. "The good ain't worth the bad. He's a losing player. Cares about himself more than the team. If I was in charge and had money, my team would not pursue him."

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo hit back, calling those remarks "totally unfair on so many levels," per Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post.

As evidence, Rizzo pointed to Harper's 2012 Rookie of the Year Award, five All-Star appearances and 2015 NL MVP trophy. It's a solid counterargument. And, lest we forget, Harper is only 25 years old.

But this was supposed to be the season he vaulted past the stratosphere and cemented a possible $400 million payday.

Instead, he's been a mercurial disappointment. He's flashed the power and potential that make him one of baseball's must-watch players, but he's dampened things with a disturbing dollop of futility.

"The past couple weeks, I've just chased out of the zone a little too much," Harper said June 21, per Barry Svrluga of the Post. "The biggest thing I see in myself is really just swinging at pitcher's pitches."

Harper may also be the victim of bad luck. His 41.2 percent hard-contact rate is well above his career mark of 35.0 percent. If he maintains that career-best pace, the hits will start falling, and the average will climb.

Results are results, however. And with each passing month, millions of dollars are slipping through Harper's fingers.

In mid-June, he cut off his beard and recreated the look of the brash 19-year-old who debuted to much fanfare (and boos) at Dodger Stadium in 2012.

Maybe Harper is trying to crank back the clock to a time when expectations weighed heavily but his entire career stretched before him.

Or maybe we're reading too much into a simple shave.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23:  Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals looks on from second base during a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park on June 23, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Multiple teams will come calling this offseason. The New York Yankees are an intriguing possibility if they can clear space in the outfield. The Chicago Cubs—who employ Harper's buddy Kris Bryant—will be mentioned early and often. And the Nats won't let their franchise player walk without an offer.

In fact, it'd be easier to list the teams that won't at least kick Harper's tires.

If his stats don't tick northward, however, any and all prospective buyers will demand a discount. When you're seeking the gaudiest contract in MLB history, a .216 average won't do.

"The biggest thing that we talk about all the time is just, sometimes, less is more and to keep things simple," Nationals skipper Dave Martinez said, per Svrluga. "He's going to hit."

That's a relatively safe prediction based on Harper's history. There's no indication he's hurt, which has been his biggest problem in the past. He's just not hitting at the clip he's capable of.

So we wait—to see if he can leave the Mendoza Line in the dust.

Tick...tock.

No pressure.

   

All statistics accurate as of Monday and courtesy of FanGraphs.

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