Patrick Reddington: Bryce Harper is still learning, and that should scare opponents

As Mike Rizzo explained this winter, the decision to move Bryce Harper to right field and Jayson Werth to left field served two purposes. One, Werth could “save his legs” with less ground to cover in left, which Rizzo explained would lead to less wear in the short and long-term for the 35-year-old outfielder.

With Harper in right, the Nationals general manager said the team has younger legs capable of covering more ground, and a cannon of an arm that could seriously dissuade opposing teams from taking extra bases on balls hit the 22-year-old’s way.

Though we have yet to see how Werth adjusts to the less demanding defensive position, there are signs early that the move to right for Harper will pay dividends.

“We’ve seen a couple of examples of it,” Nationals skipper Matt Williams told reporters after watching Harper dart into the right-center gap to make a few catches and make one particularly impressive throw to second from the right field corner off Lucas Duda’s fifth-inning line drive amid a 2-1 game Wednesday night.

“He played the ball perfectly off the wall on Duda’s ball and held him to first,” Williams said. “That sets up our team for a potential double play ball the next pitch or in that next at bat, and I think that he’s worked hard on becoming good at it. He charges the ball well. We saw him cut a couple off in the gap last night, go deep in the corner for a ball. Again, it’s not easy out there. You’ve got the lights, you’ve got wind and you’ve got the mist out there. So it’s not easy to play, but he works hard at it and he wants to be good at it. So it’s great for our team to have him out there and potentially to be able to stop those guys going from first to third and have it in the back of the opposing team’s mind that, ‘Hey, listen, he’s out there,’ and maybe think twice about doing it.”

And that arm. Wednesday night wasn’t the first time Harper has uncorked one. He’s collected a number of impressive outfield assists already in his career and deterred more than a few runners from even attempting to advance, at times drawing cheers from the Nationals Park crowd by just stopping runners in their tracks.

“It’s strong and it’s accurate,” Williams said.

Harper’s ability to get good reads and be in a good position to field the ball is equally important.

“It’s a question of the ball getting down in the corner,” Williams explained. “Lucas hit that ball hard and it bounced off the wall and (Harper) made a nice play, read the bounce right and was able to hold him at first. And he cuts the ball off well. He went to the gap well tonight and having that arm available certainly makes people think twice about turning at first and going to second.”

The second-year skipper has also seen signs of improvement at the plate from Harper, the 2010 No.1 overall pick who is making adjustments as he gets more and more major league at bats.

Harper homered in the season opener, crushing a fastball from Bartolo Colon and going 2-for-4 with two of the Nats’ three hits.

On Wednesday night, Harper struck out swinging the first time up against Jacob deGrom, then singled on a line drive to right in his second at bat and singled to left the third time up, going with a pitch down and away from the Mets right-hander.

Mets reliever Rafael Montero walked Harper rather than face him with a runner on late in the game.

Williams said the single to left was a particularly important example of what Harper needs to do to be successful and hit for a high average.

“It’s important for him to do that,” Williams said when asked about Harper shortening up his swing and going with the pitch.

“As you get older, you understand that pitches will dictate what you can do with them. When you’re young and strong like Bryce, he’s hit that ball down and away over the left field field fence sometimes, but the frequency with which he does it is not conducive to having a high average. If he can hit like he’s hitting, then home runs will come, doubles will come. Those are a byproduct of having a good approach and a short quick swing and he worked on that all spring. So he’s seeing some fruits of that labor as we speak. And that’s good for him.

“The more base hits he can get, the more production he’ll be able to provide for the team and the better he’ll feel about it.”

In the series finale with New York, however, Harper’s approach was somewhat less impressive, as he struck out in all three trips to the plate against Matt Harvey, repeatedly chasing and missing high heaters, then lined out to right in his final at-bat of the game.

“He swung at some balls out of the strike zone today,” Williams said after the loss on Thursday. “The strikeouts were balls up in the zone, and with Matt that ball comes in there pretty quickly, so one of the keys against him is to make sure that we swing at strikes. He got Harper a couple of times today. The last ball he hit fairly decent, but I think he’s just fine.”

Harper’s still a work in progress. That should scare the opposition.

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.

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