VIERA, Fla. - Rick Eckstein was talking shop with some of the Nationals’ hitters the other day when Bryce Harper injected himself into the discussion. What the Washington hitting coach heard from his top prospect made Eckstein smile when he recounted the tale because it spoke to how advanced a hitter Harper is, assuming you can believe that a 19-year-old with no major league experience can be considered advanced.
“We were talking about certain pitchers, talking about zones,” Eckstein said. “We were talking about hitting. He brought up the conversation about a certain pitcher and (said), ‘This is what he’s going to do and when he does it, this is where it’s going to go.’ He’s awesome. All to his credit. He’s very mature, very in tune with everything and every aspect of his game. That’s pretty impressive for a 19-year-old.”
Harper will eventually hit some bumps in the road - all hitters do - but Eckstein’s impressions of the top overall pick from the 2010 draft have been universally positive. Eckstein sees in Harper a hitter wise beyond his years whose mental approach to the art of swinging a bat rivals some of the club’s veterans.
It’s more than just recognizing pitch placement and memorizing opponents’ sequences. It’s how Harper relishes the notion of preparing to step in the batter’s box.
“He’s a student, he’s worked at his craft,” Eckstein said. “He’s challenged himself as hard as you can challenge yourself.”
And then there’s the swing, a left-handed power stroke capable of spraying balls deep in the gaps, the same one that produced a monster shot to center field during live batting practice Thursday morning. Crushed balls notwithstanding, it’s what happens before Harper connects that Eckstein has most noticed.
“For lack of a better term, his whole body is in synch,” Eckstein said. “Everything’s in synch and he utilizes every ounce of his abilities and ... it all comes together right at impact. It’s pretty unique the way he utilizes his entire body and his legs. It’s pretty impressive.”
Harper will start Friday when the Nationals host Georgetown in an exhibition game, and will play again Saturday when the team opens its Grapefruit League season against the Astros in Kissimmee, Fla. It’s a good bet that right-hander Livan Hernandez, the ex-Nat trying to make the Astros as a non-roster player, will try to confuse the prospect with a pitch from his arsenal of slow and slower offerings.
Learning to cope with pitchers getting the better of a battle against him is one thing Harper will have to eventually deal with. But Eckstein doesn’t anticipate any problems in that progression.
“He’s got to learn the pitching he’s going to face and how they’re going to try to attack him, and learn what they’re trying to do to him,” the hitting coach said. “As we get into games, we watch that and evaluate what adjustments he’s making and what we need to talk about, and take it from there. He’s always shown the abilities to make the adjustments against the competition that he’s facing.”
And the fact that Harper will often be battling against pitchers with substantially more experience than he possesses?
“It’s the one thing I think he’s done his entire career: faced competition that’s so-called older than him and made the necessary adjustment to compete at the highest level,” Eckstein said.
Eckstein is impressed with both Harper’s mental approach and his commitment to learning. Harper was one of six Nationals who took part in the first extra batting practice session of the spring, getting additional hacks under blazing sunshine with the temperatures in the high 80s. He was joined by Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, Rick Ankiel and Brett Carroll.
“I like it that I don’t have to tell them what I want them to do,” Eckstein said. “I want them to have the ability to tell me what they need and then we’ll provide it.”