Late in the 2012 campaign, former Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who was tasked with helping to oversee the first two years of Bryce Harper’s development as a major leaguer, was asked if there was anything he would like to see the then-19-year-old change?
He said, “No,” initially.
“I like him just the way he is, to answer your question,” Johnson told the reporter who asked. The all-out, hard-nosed, free-wheeling, super-aggressive approach Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, brought to all aspects of the game was just fine with his first big league skipper.
“A lot of people around the league tip their hat to that kind of all-in,” Johnson said.
On second thought, though, the veteran of 13 seasons in the majors thought of one thing he would like to see Harper stop doing.
“I hope he gets to softening his slam into first base,” Johnson said, referring to Harper’s tendency to stomp hard on first as he ran through the bag on every hit and groundout. “But other than that everything else is pretty good.”
Johnson sympathized at times with the scrutiny Harper received as he made his way up and through his first seasons in the majors. Though Harper seemed unaffected by the attention he received, Johnson said it did get to him at times.
“He’s an intelligent guy, but he’s also very sensitive,” Johnson said, “I mean, here, he ran on the scene. He’s got commercials, and he’s got a lot of people in his ear too much and I think he’s handled it pretty good.”
When a knee injury knocked him out for more than a month and there were constant reminders of running into outfield walls in Atlanta and Los Angeles , Johnson said there were a lot of voices offering advice and trying to tell Harper how to proceed once he was back on the field.
“I think through that whole period,” Johnson said, “a lot of people were telling him he had to change his style and all this stuff to (lengthen) his career. He doesn’t want to hear any of that. He just wants to play baseball. And his style of play is great.”
The Nationals’ now-21-year-old slugger went through another period of intense scrutiny last week when he was benched for failing to run all the way to first a grounder back to the mound.
Though there were suggestions that the move on manager Matt Williams’ part was in part a big-picture move aimed at stopping some bad habits and instilling a team-first ethos, Williams said he was just following through on a message he delivered just a few days before the incident and unfortunately, the decision to bench Harper hurt everyone involved when he missed a late-game opportunity where he could have helped the Nationals.
“It’s just the way we set out to do it,” Williams explained. “Regardless of situation. Regardless of what’s happening to you personally, we have to play the game a certain way to give ourselves the best chance to win. And it’s too bad that it came down to that situation in the ninth inning when he could have been at the plate.”
“For the sake of his teammates and the sake of the organization,” Williams continued, “he needs to play with aggression and the way he plays.”
After all the talk and national attention his benching received, in the eighth inning of the series finale with the Angels, Harper hit a grounder to first that looked like another sure out, but Albert Pujols misplayed it. Harper wasn’t exactly sprinting out of the box, but as soon as he saw the fielding error take place he turned on the jets and made it to first in time to avoid another mental error.
A reporter wondered if Williams noticed, but the Nats skipper wasn’t biting this time. After calling Harper out publicly after the first incident, the Nationals’ first-year manager explained what might have been lost in all the discussion about the benching.
“He’s safe at first base,” Williams said. “That’s all I care about. Again, we’re not asking him to go 100 percent all the time, you know what I mean, as fast as he can possibly go at every single moment, because not everybody does. But what we expect is for him to give us a chance and he gave us a chance on that play. The ball was mishandled by Albert and he kicked it in gear and got on first base. That’s all I care about.”
If Harper got the message the first time, hopefully he received it again. Williams might be critical and willing to do what he has to do to teach his young star the right way to go about things. But he also has Harper’s back.
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.