Harper hoping to improve, Williams hoping to help

VIERA, Fla. - Given how well-known he is across the baseball landscape and the level of talent he possesses, it’s easy to forget that Bryce Harper is still just 21 and has played in just 371 games as a professional.

Harper’s skill set is vast, but he has some things he needs to improve upon, some ways that he can bolster his game. And he has an idea of a couple key areas that he’d like to focus on this spring.

“Baserunning, that’s huge for me this year,” Harper said. “I’m going to try to pick Matt’s mind about that kind of stuff. Really watch pitchers and see what they’re doing on that.”

“Matt” is new Nationals manager, Matt Williams. Harper and Williams met yesterday and discussed Harper’s baserunning, and Williams volunteered to help Harper with some smaller aspects of the craft that he thinks can help make the Nats’ left fielder a more complete player.

“It’s a really welcome comment and sign,” Williams said. “He wants to get better at it. And again, I don’t know anybody who can’t improve on their baserunning, improve on all aspects of their game, really. So we have to understand where he comes from. He’s a dynamic player and someone who didn’t have a whole lot of minor league experience. And so, that being said, he wants to improve, and that’s a great thing.

“We’re here and available for everybody, and certainly give everybody our opinion and go from there. But yeah, he’s one of those guys that can change a game on the basepaths, as well.”

With Harper, it seems like there’s always a line that needs to be straddled between wanting him to remain aggressive and be himself, but at the same time not playing out of control. Williams says he’s made it clear that he’s not looking to change Harper’s playing style and is willing to tolerate a few errors now and then, as long as they’re hustle errors.

“I want him to be free to play,” Williams said. “That’s the way I want to go about doing it. So what does that take? Well, it takes certainly confidence from your manager that you’re free to play. Again, we’re gonna make mistakes along the way. Everybody will. But I want him to certainly learn from those, but I don’t want to take away his aggressiveness, because that’s what makes him, him. That’s what makes him the ballplayer that he is.

“So, that being said, we’re going to encourage him to play the way he plays, and let him know that we support that and we’ve got his back in that regard. And if something goes haywire out there or there’s a mistake made, that we’ll talk about it. But just because somebody makes a mistake, doesn’t mean they have to make a complete 180 and go the other way. It’s part of the maturation process. And we all understand that.”

Harper showed what he’s capable of offensively in the first month of the season when he hit .344/.430/.720 with nine homers, 18 RBIs, 14 walks and 16 strikeouts in 26 games. His numbers against left-handed pitching on the season weren’t too strong, and while he countered a question about his stats against southpaws by noting that he often faces tough lefties in the late innings (“If anyone want to face Aroldis Chapman, they can do it for me,” he said), he knows he needs to get better in that area.

There are other areas he’d like to improve offensively, as well.

“I just want to have good ABs and try to keep my strikeouts down again and my walks up,” Harper said. “I think I did a pretty good job of that last year, being a lot more patient.”

Harper had 120 strikeouts and 56 walks in 597 plate appearances in 2012, his rookie campaign. In 2013, Harper struck out 94 times and walked 61 times in 497 plate appearances. Progress, but he hopes more is coming.

“He’s one of those guys who can change the game in every aspect,” Williams said. “He can hit a ball to the fence. He can also drop down a bunt and beat it out. He’s dynamic on the basepaths. He can change a game with his arm. And he’s a smart player. So all of those things combined make for a special package. We need to kind of sharpen that tool a little bit. And that’s why we’re here. We’re here to help him sharpen his skills and get him to a point where ... I would like to see him get to a point where he’s a legitimate MVP candidate. I think he’s got the ability to do that. When that may happen, I don’t know. But I want him to be free to play and get out there and let ‘er hang out and go.

“He’s gonna get better and better. Right now it’s the tip of the iceberg, I think. I think there’s a lot more there.”

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