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For Nationals, Harper's slump provides problem with no easy answer

For Nationals, Harper's slump provides problem with no easy answer Photo:

Bryce Harper is not going to the minor leagues, as Nationals manager Matt Williams made emphatically clear when speaking to reporters before Wednesday night’s 7-1 over the Mets. But that doesn’t change the fact that Harper is simply not hitting.

Entering Thursday afternoon's game against New York, Harper had hit just .218/.325/.307 in 118 plate appearances since being activated from the disabled list at the end of June; he was 3-for-19 in August (.158) and had gone 34 plate appearances since his last extra-base hit. His strikeouts are up, and his power is gone. So if Harper isn’t going to the minors, what should the Nationals, who have a four-game lead in the National League East and will play three games against the second-place Braves this weekend, do with him?

The first step is determining exactly why Harper isn’t hitting. That’s always easier said than done, but the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore went a long way toward pinpointing the issue in his must-read piece on Harper and the short-lived demotion controversy on Monday. In Kilgore’s view, it all goes back to the knee injury Harper suffered when he ran into an outfield wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13 of last year, a collision which resulted in bursitis in Harper’s left knee.

Looking back, Harper knows he should have had surgery right then. Instead, he dragged his knee through the season, missing one month on the disabled list but never fully healing. He changed his swing to accommodate the pain – he needed to open his front side sooner, which left him defenseless to pitches on the outside corner, particularly from left-handed pitchers. ... Harper underwent knee surgery in November, which pushed back his offseason routine. He started swinging a month later than usual, and it was not a usual offseason. He needed not only to gear up for the season, but also to undo the bad habits formed while playing through a knee injury. He scuffled in spring training. He batted sixth in the lineup, an attempt to decrease pressure that may have actually caused him to place more on himself. After the sixth game of the season, Harper declared himself ‘lost.’

Harper found his stroke soon after, hitting .345/.415/.535 over 16 games starting on April 9, only to tear a ligament in his left thumb sliding into third on a triple on April 25. Per Kilgore, that was “a new injury that affected his swing.”

Without full strength in his hand, Harper can make the same swing he always and receive different feedback. You can see why he spiked his helmet at first base after the flyout to the track [Sunday] night, where the frustration comes from. For so long, the swing he put on that ball would be enough to drive it out of the park. With a left thumb three months removed [from] surgery, it died at the track. Harper keeps changing his stance and tweaking his swing, but what Harper’s looking for may not be discovered until his thumb strengthens. It is a physical issue that led to shaken confidence that led to mechanical issues.

Williams offered a similar diagnosis in the Wednesday morning radio interview that ignited the demotion controversy, telling the hosts, "I would not discount the fact that he had an injury to his top hand."

The short version is that Harper isn’t healthy, and even if he doesn’t suffer another injury for the rest of the season, it seems likely that the weakness in his thumb isn’t going to abate until he has an extended period of rest. The 62 days he spent on the disabled list following his surgery clearly weren’t enough. The question then shifts from whether the Nationals should demote Harper to whether they should place him back on the DL.

That is not such a bad idea. Even simply giving Harper some regular rest could help, as he has played in every game since returning from the DL, starting all but three of them. Per both Williams and Kilgore, Harper works hard every day in the batting cage, but despite all those reps, his slump has only deepened. If the problem really is lingering weakness in his left thumb, all that extra work may actually be doing more harm than good.

One thing Kilgore mentioned with regard to Harper’s mechanics is that the adjustments he made in his swing last year hurt him against left-handed pitching. This year, since coming off the disabled list, he has hit just .194/.275/.222 against lefties. That’s in a mere 40 plate appearances, but it would seem that one easy thing to do would be to give Harper a day off when the Nationals’ opponents are starting a left-hander. Williams has three right-handers to choose from to start in Harper’s place in those games: Scott Hairston, Kevin Frandsen, and rookie Steven Souza, the last of whom has hit .354/.435/.601 with 18 home runs and 24 stolen bases in Triple-A this year and has a good outfield arm, to boot.

What’s more, tell Harper that, if he’s not playing, he has the entire day off. Don’t hit in the cage, don’t take batting practice, just take the day and rest your hand. Looking at Washington’s upcoming schedule, the Nationals will next face a lefty on Sunday in Atlanta’s Alex Wood, then have an off-day Monday. That’s two consecutive days off, something Harper hasn’t had since the All-Star break. If Williams can identify a hot hand from among those three righties. If nothing else, it seems as though the time has come for Harper to reduce his work in the cage, anything to allow his thumb to heal more quickly. In the meantime, having Harper in the Nationals’ lineup isn’t helping Washington, so there’s not much to lose in giving him days off or even sending him back to the disabled list.

It’s an extremely frustrating situation for Harper and the Nationals, particularly with Washington hoping to extend its season deep in to October and with Harper’s fellow 2012 Rookie of the Year, Mike Trout, who turned 23 on Thursday, well on his way to his third straight MVP-worthy season. Yet, through Wednesday’s games, the Nationals had the second-best record in the National League despite Harper’s struggles.

Both player and team may have to accept that Harper’s thumb may not fully heal until the offseason. If that’s the case, having Harper play every day at Triple-A would be of absolutely no benefit. For the remainder of this season, a reduced role with the major league team may be the only solution.

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