TORONTO - Ask Bryce Harper how he feels at the plate right now, and he’ll insist everything’s fine.
“I feel great,” he said yesterday. “Just missing pitches.”
Harper is missing a lot of pitches, though. In 12 games so far this month, he’s batting .163 with one homer, three RBIs, four walks, 20 strikeouts and a .498 OPS that ranks 169th out of 184 qualified big league hitters during this stretch.
This prolonged slump, which really extends back into early May, leaves Harper with a .221 season batting average. His on-base and slugging percentages (.361, .489) still look good, but that’s only because he was off-the-charts productive early in the season. (On May 4, his on-base percentage was .450, his slugging percentage .623.)
How, then, does Harper believe he best can get himself back on track and not miss those pitches he admits he’s missing?
“Just try to get pitches to hit and not miss them,” he said. “Plain and simple.”
Is it, though?
Davey Martinez has seen enough of Harper now to recognize there’s more going on than a simple missing of pitches. Harper is giving away a lot of at-bats, either by taking pitches over the plate or chasing others off the plate. He’s not hitting the ball to the opposite field. And he’s not showing the patience that in the past has allowed him not to give in to pitchers who don’t want to attack him.
More than anything, Martinez sees Harper’s emotions starting to get in the way of his performance.
“I watch him, and he gets a little frustrated,” the manager said. “The biggest thing is just to keep him level-headed and let him go out there and do his thing. I’ve said this before: He’s one of the best players in the game. He’s going to carry us, I know he is. I just want him to go out there and have fun and do the little things. Take his walks. ... I just want him to go out there and relax and play the game. And when he does that, he’s really good.”
Few hitters in baseball are perfectionists like Harper, who never seems fully content with his performance. But that trait could be hindering him from snapping out of his funk.
Harper spends countless hours in the batting cage, working on his swing. Perhaps there’s some paralysis by analysis going on right now.
“What I think I’d like for him to do is maybe not swing so much,” Martinez said. “He’s been swinging a lot. And I really think now is the time to take less swings and just go play. And see if we can work something out.”
The Nationals’ recent offensive woes - three shutouts in five games, seven games with five or fewer hits in their last 13 - go well beyond Harper. Proven hitters like Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and Daniel Murphy aren’t performing up to their career norms. Inexperienced hitters like Pedro Severino and Wilmer Difo are struggling to find a level of consistency as they play on a daily basis for the first time due to injuries to others.
But only one member of the Nationals roster has won an MVP award, unanimously for that matter. Only one was on track for another MVP run last season before a freak knee injury essentially ended his season seven weeks early.
If the Nats are going to rediscover their missing offensive prowess, Harper is going to have to be a big part of it.