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It’s a make-or-break year for Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. On the surface, that statement seems insane. Even baseball’s best players are still developing at age 24. Paul Goldschmidt, for instance, was just finishing up his first full season in the majors. Charlie Blackmon had only played in 27 major league games. Most players are focused on adjusting to life in the majors at 24, not suddenly facing a critical season.
But this is Bryce Harper we’re talking about. Normal expectations don’t apply. From age 16, Harper was touted as baseball’s savior. He was dubbed “Baseball’s LeBron” before he was even drafted.
Thus far, whether he’s lived up to the billing depends on who you ask. To some, Harper has been every bit the superstar. He’s put up exceptional numbers in the majors while most players his age are still in Triple-A. To others, he needs be a perennial MVP candidate. The type of player who routinely puts up otherworldly numbers.
He did exactly that in 2015. Harper turned in perhaps the most dominant offensive season since peak Barry Bonds. As a 22-year-old, Harper slashed an incredible .330/.460/.649, with 42 home runs over 654 plate appearances. That performance made Harper a unanimous selection as the National League MVP. He became the youngest player ever to accomplish that feat. Even the most stringent Harper haters no longer had an argument to stand on.
They didn’t stay quiet for long. After turning in the greatest offensive performance in nearly a decade, Harper looked pedestrian in 2016. After a strong April, Harper completely went in the tank. From May 1 on, Harper hit a disappointing .235/.367/.392 over 532 plate appearances. While some players would kill for those numbers, it was an incredible let-down for Harper.
Combine all of that, and it’s easy to see how Harper is facing a crucial year in 2017. The massive hype, intense criticism, insane breakthrough and disappointing follow-up make him a big question mark heading into 2017. Is Harper truly the once-in-a-generation player everyone predicted, or is he merely an above-average regular who is too cocky for his own good?
Figuring that out requires an understanding of what happened to Harper last season. That’s a nearly impossible task. While some evidence has been uncovered that Harper was dealing with an injury throughout a significant portion of the year, no one — not the team nor Harper — seems willing to discuss specifics.
Going in-depth on all the research surrounding Harper’s poor 2016 would require thousands of words. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version of those findings:
In August, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated writes a piece saying Harper has been playing through a shoulder injury for at least two months. It is believed Harper injured himself during a slide in June, but continued to play despite the issue. He was reportedly receiving treatment for the injury, according to Verducci.
That same day, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo denies Harper is dealing with a shoulder injury. Rizzo says Harper was treated for a neck issue, but that was it. Harper did miss five games in August with a stiff neck, but was never placed on the disabled list.
Verducci again reiterates Harper is dealing with shoulder issues in September. Again, Rizzo and Nationals manager Dusty Baker deny that’s the case. Harper is asked about the report, but does not want to answer questions about it.
Baker, Rizzo, Harper and team trainer Paul Lessard hold a private meeting to discuss Verducci’s report. Harper told Rizzo and Baker the report was false, and Lessard said he had not treated Harper for a shoulder injury during the year, according to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.
In February, Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, tells MLB Network Radio that Harper “had an issue he played through” during the 2016 season. Boras doesn’t elaborate on what ailed Harper throughout the year.
Harper arrives at spring training, tells reporters he knows “exactly why” he struggled in 2016, and then refuses to elaborate.
All of that seems to indicate that something was up with Harper in 2016. When you look at the ways in which Harper declined in 2016, an undisclosed injury makes way too much sense. Harper stopped hitting the ball as hard last season. His exit velocity dropped nearly two and half mph from where it was during his MVP season. This led to weaker contact, which contributed to a .264 BABIP. That figure was the ninth-lowest in the majors in 2016. It put Harper in-between such hitting luminaries as Danny Espinosa and Alexei Ramirez.
On top of that, there’s evidence Harper’s ailing shoulder may have changed how he aligned himself in the field. Harper positioned himself much closer to home plate during the middle of the season, perhaps to compensate for a diminished throwing arm. That was somewhat reflected in the numbers, as Harper saw his average mph on “competitive throws” decline from 95.5 to 93.2, according to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello. Those numbers took a precipitous dive in August and September, when Harper struggled to break 90 mph on his throws from right.
Given all that evidence, it’s safe to assume Harper was greatly restricted by some sort of injury in 2016. Either that, or a 23-year-old with a tremendous pedigree suddenly forgot how to hit and will go down as one of the flukiest one-year wonders of all-time.
Harper’s spring numbers suggest that’s not the case. Through 42 at-bats, Harper is hitting .310/.408/.810, with six home runs. While the normal small-sample caveats apply, Harper’s numbers feel more significant this spring following last year’s struggles.
As of right now, it doesn’t look like Harper is dealing with any of the issues that may have plagued him in 2016. He looks much more like the guy who went out and laid waste to the league in 2015.
The haters will have their answer soon. Now that he appears to be fully healthy, Harper has an opportunity to silence those critics for good. They will find something else, of course. It might be Harper’s hair or his attitude.
But if Harper can return to form, there won’t be any more questions about his production. Even the most persistent critics will have to respect his stats.
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