PHILADELPHIA — Not that long ago, veteran leadership in Philadelphia meant plunking Bryce Harper in the back. These days, it means following his lead. In his fifth season with the Phillies, the two-time MVP has turned the all-consuming hype that hovered over him as a teenager into ubiquitous respect.
Following a thunderous performance in the Phillies’ World Series run and a borderline superhuman return from Tommy John surgery, Harper has driven home a truth that took hold a while ago. Gone is the projected caricature of him as a hotshot, the one Cole Hamels once plunked intentionally thanks to the rigidity of unspoken norms. Here in the Phillies clubhouse is a superstar setting a positive example by bending over backward for the betterment of the team. (And yes, Harper and Hamels buried that hatchet when the former signed with the Phillies.)
Harper’s warp-speed return from elbow surgery in an unprecedented 159 days was impressive already, but younger teammates are especially taking note of his willingness to learn first base. Still limited to designated hitter for now, Harper is taking grounders and practicing infield throws so that when he reaches his next level of clearance, he can fill a need at the cold corner that opened when both Rhys Hoskins and Darick Hall went down with long-term injuries.
Harper stepping in at first would certainly help fill a gap for the Phillies, who are once again off to a slower-than-desired start and hovering around .500 after last season’s cathartic October run. That’s part of why Harper at first could have positive ripple effects, as young shortstop Bryson Stott pointed out. It would reopen the designated hitter slot to help fellow veterans Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos and J.T. Realmuto stay in the lineup with more rest.
“I think anytime you can look at a superstar doing that,” Stott said, “it's like, why am I complaining about something if he's over here, one of the best players in the game, changing his stuff?”
Positional flexibility has been en vogue in MLB for a while, but it still raises eyebrows when stars on Harper’s level move — such as Freddie Freeman’s brief foray at third base or Mookie Betts’ dabbling at shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In this case, Harper volunteered, bringing the idea up to Dave Dombrowski, the team’s president of baseball operations, and manager Rob Thomson after Hoskins went down, while he was still on the rehab trail himself.
“Once that happened, I was like, 'All right, well, it's kind of a revolving door over there right now,'” Harper said, citing his desire to help 26-year-old “big-time third baseman” Alec Bohm, who has often been shifting to play first, get back to his usual position.
“He's a guy who's been around baseball a long, long time — has seen a lot of things in his lifetime,” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long said of Harper.
Before the Washington Nationals drafted him first overall in 2010, Harper played catcher and third base. The Nats moved him to the outfield to accelerate his path to the majors. Now 30 years old, Harper has been there for more than a third of his life.
He’s approaching this latest challenge like he does anything else: by working at it constantly, taking as many reps as he possibly can. Stott, a fellow Las Vegas native, has been watching Harper since he was a kid but only recently has gotten a full sense of the work ethic involved in Harper’s preparation.
“Going through high school and college, I knew I needed a routine of some sorts,” Stott said. “His is very to the tee — you almost know what time it is when he's doing something.”
Harper, though, doesn’t think younger players necessarily need to emulate him. He wants every teammate to find what works for them, whether they learn it from him or Trea Turner or Schwarber or Realmuto.
“You never want to change anybody,” Harper said as he works to execute a change of his own volition. That’s the distinction, and it dovetails with a game-wide shift toward embracing a greater level of individuality — as long as it is geared toward winning — that Harper has lived and influenced.
Players can have the same goal but get there different ways.
“It takes a couple of years to kind of get into your own and understand what works for you,” Harper said, “being yourself and being comfortable being yourself.”
Harper’s way is effort. When he was 19, that might have looked like stealing home and occasionally running into walls full-speed. Now it looks like pregame work in addition to batting practice, fielding throws from second, taking fungoes.
These days, no one is glaring at it. They’re admiring it.
“What he's done to come back is just remarkable,” Long said. “I mean, he's worked his tail off to be here and be part of this team. So yeah, he's a role model to not only our team but a lot of guys in baseball.”