More than 20 years ago, sitting with some then-current big league players, I asked about slumps. More specifically, what they considered to be a slump, and at what point a slump turned into the beginning of the end of their playing careers.
I thought of that conversation recently when someone asked me why the Nationals continued to use Willie Harris as a pinch hitter when he was batting under .180.
What they told me back then was that a slump isn't really a slump if they're hitting the ball sharply, still pulling the ball, and able to turn on a fastball. That balls aren't falling in for hits was of lesser consequence; they were putting the ball in play, and not simply rolling over weak ground balls, or swinging and missing a lot.
Harris, who enjoyed a career year with the Nats in 2008 - 13 home runs and 43 runs batted in - hasn't had nearly the playing time this year as he's had in the past. Even he likely realizes that he's being phased out in this, the final year of his contract. His versatility is still a major plus, but I'm sure it's impossible to keep your edge playing once or twice a week.
This year Willie has appeared in 74 games with 149 plate appearances, though many of his appearances have been one AB and done. He's played all 3 outfield positions, third base and he's DH'ed in interleague games. Looking at his hitting chart from home games, he's clearly still able to pull the ball; hitting the ball to left field has resulted in flyouts most of the time.
Willie has struck out 32 times against only 17 walks. His 162-game average for strikeouts is 78, but that's with a lot more plate appearances that he'll get this year, so it's clear he's ahead of that pace. He averages 49 walks a year, so he's well behind that pace. Not particularly good signs.
He's been far more productive at Nats Park this year than on the road; it's not even close: a .235 average at home and just .102 away. All of his home runs and 8 of his 10 extra base hits are at home this year, and while it's not 50-50 in terms of opportunities, it's pretty close.
He's been more productive this month than earlier in the season, but playing time still figures to be intermittent for the rest of the season, barring injury to a regular.
Has Harris given the Nationals their money's worth? I think so. He just turned 32, and I'm sure he thinks he has something left in the tank. His versaitility in the field may make him attractive to a contender, and if that's the case, he'd be remembered with some fondness.
The Nationals aren't yet ready to send Harris packing, and I understand that. It's becoming more and more likely, however, that he'll be wearing a different uniform next year.
I can't say for certain that's Harris' .173 batting average is a genuine slump or something worse. Time will tell on that, but the former would be preferable to the latter.