WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - One of the reasons the Nationals selected Dusty Baker as their manager two offseasons ago was the veteran skipper’s pedigree of successfully dealing with high-profile, young sluggers. For Baker, working with Bryce Harper on a daily basis is no different than his past relationships with Barry Bonds in San Francisco or Ken Griffey Jr. in Cincinnati.
Maybe that’s why Baker has a significant insight into whether Harper will rebound from a marked downturn last season after winning the National League Most Valuable Player award in 2015. Baker doesn’t think there’s a magic recipe Harper must employ to return to form. It’s more of how quickly Harper grasps the age-old baseball maxim of adjusting to pitchers once they adjust to him, something he didn’t do so well last season.
“You’re in the big leagues, and these guys aren’t going to let you just keep beating on them,” Baker said. “They’re going to make adjustments. And now it’s up to you to make counter-adjustments. I’ve got a pretty good handle on it, I think. I’ve shared it with him. That’s part of growing up, man. Part of growing up in the big leagues. They have videos. They have different things that they’re looking (at) for different kryptonites, to combat a person.
“The greats of the game, there’s nothing that hasn’t been tried on those (guys). They see if you can hit a fastball away. OK, then they see if you can hit a fastball in. Then they’re going to see if you can hit sliders. They’re going to see if they can intimidate you. Then they’re going to see if you can hit the changeup. The game is about constantly adjusting. Let’s face it: He’s way ahead of most guys (24) years old. You look at everybody’s bubble gum card and there are some years in there that are not going to be what your career numbers are, generally.”
That was the case for Harper, whose drop-off last year was both noticeable and, at times, defied any solution. On Saturday morning, Harper admitted that he had to lobby Baker strongly on a few occasions to stay in the lineup, figuring that the best way out of his slump wasn’t sitting on the bench.
“Yeah, there were times, but that’s what communication’s about,” Baker said. “There’s always times. And I like guys to lobby to stay in the lineup. That means they want to play. But the ultimate decision is mine. I have to do what’s best for the player and the team at the same time. I’d say, ‘Hey, man, how you feeling?’ I could see him slowing down. And there were some times I didn’t have to lobby at all, because I said, ‘OK, man, we’ve got 15 days in a row. I’m going to try to give you Sunday off.’ And he says, ‘I’ll be ready to win the game, late in the game.’
”... With certain guys, your horses come to play. That’s why they’re horses. I haven’t had any trouble with Bryce. He’s very easy to get along with. He’s very respectful. He’s very respectful of authority. He’s very respectful of the guys that preceded him. And he’s probably as knowledgeable of baseball history as anybody that I have out there. And that kind of really surprised me at his young age. A lot of guys, I’ll say, ‘Hey, you know this guy?’ ‘No, never heard of him.’ ... Baseball doesn’t do a very good job, I think, of history. And you sort of have to research or have to learn on your own. I don’t know if he learned on his own but almost everybody I’ve asked him about, he knows who they are. He’s much older than his age.”
Baker saw Harper struggle to adapt when the Cubs’ Joe Maddon ordered him walked time after time in Chicago during a series in May, but didn’t think that was the root cause of Harper’s season-long woes. Baker thinks Harper wasn’t making hay on the few pitches he had to work with, while pitchers were being extremely careful not to give him a fat pitch to crush.
“Well, that certainly didn’t help,” Baker said. “But, I mean, when was that game, May? OK, well, that’s a long time from May to September. There was a time when people were running from him. And then there was a time when also people were running at him. A lot of times in those situations, he’d have a pitch to hit and would foul it off and would therefore put himself in a situation for them to try to get him out.”
Getting to know Harper, starting with spring training a year ago, gave Baker a glimpse into a unique individual.
“I liked him from the beginning,” Baker said. “He’s a pretty cool little dude. He’s pretty hip on a lot of fronts. You listen to his variety of music and how he dresses. You know he’s not afraid to be Bryce. I think he knows himself probably better than most (24)-year-olds do. I enjoyed being around him. What you see is what you get. You don’t get any fakeness out of Bryce.”
Ultimately, Baker appreciated that Harper kept posting day after day, expecting his name to be written on the lineup card, because he thought that was the only way he was going to escape his offensive funk.
And for an elite hitter, Baker said, confidence is key.
“I don’t think he’s ever been lacking for confidence,” Baker said. “Even when he wasn’t hitting a lick, he had confidence. And confidence is something that’ll take you through areas where you’ve never been before. He’s been hitting since he was 2, you know? You lose confidence in a few months, that’s not true confidence. So, no, I’m not worried about Bryce. He’ll learn from it and when he’s in that situation again of getting in a hole, he’ll know how to get out of that hole a lot quicker. I don’t know anybody that’s gone his whole career without getting in a hole. It doesn’t happen. So, yeah, I’m not worried about him.”
“Joe, he looked great the other day, too,” Baker said. “He threw less pitches today, but they were sharper. And so the ball’s coming out good. Coming out firm, especially so early. His slider looked pretty good. I mean, he looked like Joe Nathan. Like I said, I’ve been knowing Joe a long time. Mike Maddux knows Joe as well as I do. So Mike liked what he saw, too.”
Baker was the Giants manager when Nathan broke into the big leagues in 1999. And he knows that the right-hander uses control, placement and guile more than velocity at this point in his career.
“You can guess about velocity and get pretty close,” Baker said. “Looking at a guy like him, does he look healthy? Is he short-arming? Is the ball coming out of his hand right? And you’re not really looking, for a guy that was hurt, you’re not really looking at location as much as you’re looking for how it’s coming out of his hand. But he has both. Joe’s looking good. He’s looking very good, actually.”
Romero has a chance to be stick as a third left-hander in the bullpen behind Oliver Perez and Sammy Solis, and Baker has long been a fan of carrying three southpaw relievers. But the former Rays prospect will have to overcome a penchant for wildness. Still, he’s long been someone the Nationals were interested in, and when they had the chance to get the 26-year-old the week before camp started, they jumped at the chance to acquire a live-armed pitcher capable of throwing at 96 mph.
“He has an electric arm,” Baker said. “I heard he was a guy that we had coveted before we got (Felipe) Rivero. They wouldn’t give us Romero. I heard we wanted Romero first and then Rivero second. They wouldn’t give Romero and traded us Rivero. ... I see some dynamite arms but again, the secret of pitching is location. And it’s a lot easier to have location when there’s not a batter standing there. I used to go to the driving range and try to play golf, and I was dynamite. At the driving range. As soon as they put a limb sticking out there, some water, sand traps, I was lost.”
Romero is out of options, meaning he has to make the club’s 25-man roster or be exposed to waivers if the Nationals want to demote him to the minors.