After a 2015 MVP campaign in which he transformed into one of the scariest hitters in baseball, Bryce Harper struggled in 2016.
Across the board, Harper’s batting numbers fell — his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS all fell drastically from the year before.
According to ESPN’s Eddie Matz, some people in the baseball world feel that Harper’s slump originated from an eye-opening early-season series against the Chicago Cubs.
Determined not to be beaten by Harper, Joe Maddon instructed his team to intentionally walk Harper. In the four-game series, Harper was walked 13 times, reaching bases an MLB record seven times without recording an official at-bat.
The MLB world immediately wondered if this would have an effect on Harper, particularly if other teams began using the same strategy. It’s unclear how much of Harper’s struggles had to do with this strategy, but Harper never fully recovered, slumping the rest of the season. It was also later revealed that Harper played through a shoulder injury for much of the season.
Still, some wonder if the Cubs strategy, which completely neutralized Harper, messed with his head. Said Harper’s high school coach Sam Thomas to Matz:
“Hitting is the funnest part of baseball. That was probably the first time in Bryce’s life where, for an entire series, he didn’t get the opportunity to hit, where he didn’t get the opportunity to compete. Some people look at it and say it was the greatest strategy of all time. Other people think it’s crap because you’re not competing. All I know is, when you take the bat out of somebody’s hand — especially somebody that’s as competitive as Bryce is — it’s bound to have some kind of effect.”
A National League Executive told Matz:
“He’s so f—ing competitive. Almost to a detriment. When the Cubs pitched around him, if he was someone who had greater maturity and self-control — which I think he will still develop — he would have said, ‘F— it, if they’re gonna walk me, I’ll take it.’ But what he did was, he started to feel like he needed to produce and be the guy.”
Self-control and patience had become a key part of Harper’s game. A notoriously aggressive hitter, Harper had learned to channel that aggressiveness in 2015. He began swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone and his swing-and-miss rate declined. However, as the scout said to Matz, that patience seemed to evade Harper in 2016.
A scout told Matz that Harper began compensating with his swing, striving for home runs as opposed to just trying to get hits.
During the playoffs, MLB analyst Harold Reynolds said he believed Harper’s swing was out of sorts after compensating to play through his shoulder injury. By the end of the season, his swing had eroded. Some of that may have been mental, too.
This could once again be a struggle for Harper this season. If teams feel they can get into his head, then they may continue walking him, just to try to throw him off. It will be up to Harper to adjust and bat normally when a pitcher does decide to throw to him.
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