ATLANTA — One thing Nationals manager Davey Johnson prides himself on is the fact that he can help guide young hitters. He can help foster their maturation and speed their progress toward becoming the type of hitter their talent makes them easily capable of.
It was pointed out to Johnson Saturday afternoon, as he held a lengthy discussion about hitting, that he was making it sound exceedingly simple.
“It is,” he said flatly. “It’s hard because people listen to all these gurus that don’t know (crap) about it. And then they get off track.”
But one of Johnson’s key points when he talks with any young hitter is not expanding the strike zone — not chasing. Approach is what he homes in on with most, and it was what he saw rookie Bryce Harper losing for about a month from the All-Star break through mid-August. It’s what he’s seen Harper improve greatly recently.
The results are striking when you compare them side by side.
From the start of the second half through the Nationals’ lengthy west coast trip in early August, a 32-game stretch, Harper hit .171 with just four extra-base hits (one double, one triple, two home runs). He drove in seven runs, walked 15 times and struck out 32 times — an average of once every 3.8 at-bats.
Since Aug. 17, when the Nationals opened a homestand against the New York Mets, through Friday night’s game in Atlanta — a span of 26 games — Harper is hitting .340 with 16 extra-base hits (five doubles, two triples, nine home runs). He’s driven in 18 runs, walked nine times and cut down his strikeouts to now on average of once every 5.1 at-bats.
“That’s being able to control his overaggressiveness and make adjustments a little bit,” Johnson said. “He’s probably never had to make adjustments. But here, everybody since Day 1 has been respecting his ability and trying everything. They’ve tried to pitch him harder than anybody.
“They’ve always brought in left-handers (to face him late in games). He hit ‘em good early and then he went overly aggressive chasing, because he wants to do something. But then he learned if it’s not there you can’t try to make it there.”
Johnson said on multiple occasions throughout the season that he sees opposing teams focusing almost all of their strategy on getting Harper out. He sees pitching changes geared solely for Harper and relievers coming in and offering nothing to the rookie. For a while, Harper was able to rise above it. But then they caught up to him and an adjustment was required on his part to return to the production levels he’s always known.
“Everybody was trying to find ways to get him out because he gets some pretty good swings and he can hit the ball hard,” Johnson said. “When you really become a great hitter is you know what they’re trying to do to you. You know they’re going to pitch you away away until they get two strikes and then they’re going to pound you in. Or they’re going to pound you in and then go soft away.
“They’ll get a book on you that they think is the best way to get you out and once you really know what the book is, then you’ve got ‘em eating out of your hand. Most of them can’t make pitches away, away, away, and then pound you in. They’re going to miss. Then they get behind, then they’ve got to bite off more. Then you whack ‘em. It’s that simple. But it’s all about knowing what they’re trying to do and he’ll know. He’s got a better idea.”
Johnson has been exceptionally pleased with Harper’s progress late.
On Friday night he was essentially the only Nationals hitter to solve Braves right-hander Kris Medlen, taking Medlen deep for his 19th home run of the season — the second-most ever hit by a teenager in major league history.
“He’s been very patient and not chasing out of the zone a lot better,” Johnson said. “That’s (what he was doing) when he went in that month-long slump. But he kept fighting because he wants to do something and then he learned to get a good pitch, get something to drive. He can hit just about anything. He can hit any pitch anywhere. Just got too big.”