One of the strangest developments of the 2016 season has been the steep decline in production of Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper.
Coming off his MVP campaign last season, Harper hit the ground running again in April, tearing up baseball with a .286/.406/.714 batting line, nine home runs and 24 RBIs. Then, just as quickly, the production disappeared. In 82 games since April, Harper is hitting just .219/.365/.362 with 11 additional home runs and 33 RBIs.
A drop in production that prolonged and that pronounced doesn’t come without an explanation. Some have pointed to teams pitching Harper differently — in the Chicago Cubs case, not at all — leading to frustration and an altered approach. According to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci though, it’s a little more complicated than that. His sources indicate Harper is dealing with a shoulder injury that is sapping his production.
The injury affects the area at the top and back of his shoulder and at the base of his neck. Harper has been receiving treatment for the injury, the source said, including cupping therapy and Active Release Technique. Harper is hitting .233 with 20 home runs and 57 RBIs. Last year he hit .330 with 42 homers and 99 RBIs.
The injury has been particularly problematic for Harper when it comes to pulling his bottom hand through his swing, the key to creating loft and power. Harper, 23, has the highest contact rate and lowest strikeout rate of his five-year career, but his percentage of soft-hit balls is a career worst. His batting average on balls in play (.237) is the fourth-worst among qualifiers, trailing only the White Sox’ Todd Frazier, the Indians’ Carlos Santana and the Rangers’ Prince Fielder, the latter of whom ended his career this week because of repeated neck problems.
Verducci adds that the exact cause of Harper’s injury is unknown, but his source believes it was aggravated on a head-first slide during a game in May or June. A firmer timeline would no doubt create a clearer picture, but that’s not likely to come. Especially with the team going into full-on deny, deny, deny mode.
— William Ladson (@washingnats) August 12, 2016
A denial comes as no surprise. Teams tend to be secretive when it comes to injuries to key players. If there came a time when they needed to throw in the towel on Harper’s season, that’s when we’ll hear the full story.
For now, it doesn’t seem that they’re overly concerned. In fact, Harper hasn’t even been placed on the disabled list despite not appearing in a game since Aug. 6. For now, it’s a stiff neck and that’s the story they’re going to ride out.
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