- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2015

Here, delivered in full, is what was projected as possible. Bryce Harper at his max, scoffing at off-the-edge sliders, smashing fastballs, wrangling those rounding first just by reputation. Since he popped onto the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, expectations of Harper have resided in the stratosphere. His swagger, words, and swing did little to stall them, which led to a main question: When would everything coalesce? Right away? When he was 25? During the projected player prime of 27? No, it’s happening now, when he’s 22, and the rest of the team is kaput.

Harper is having a historical season that fits better in a worn black-and-white photo. One of those old-time jobs, when “The Mick” wore pinstripes and raced around the basepaths, when baseball crackled across the radio; before the callousness of social media, back when the sport was less about graphs and percentages and more about majesty. Stack up his numbers, and the comparisons point to Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle, when they were babies just starting to boom. It is a throwback year.

Harper entered Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles leading the National League in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, on-base plus slugging percentage, total bases and runs. He was second in walks. Barring an unforgivable vote, Harper will be named the National League MVP at season’s end. Only Johnny Bench and Stan Musial earned such an honor at a younger age.

“I just know that if I go out there and play my game, that everything will take care of itself,” Harper said. “All I’m worried about right now is winning ball games and doing what I can to help my team win on a daily basis. That’s all I care about right now. MVP talk and that, right now, it’s not even in my mind.”

This season has whipped several trends around for Harper. Foremost, he has been healthy. Harper has made more than 600 plate appearances for the first time in his career. Each game he plays provides a new career-high total. His only other complete season in four years was his first, the brash-filled rookie of the year effort in 2012 when he was 19.

The continued health has provided Harper a chance to make his most astounding change. He has gone from a 21-year-old playing desperate, broiling baseball to a 22-year-old fury-and-pace manager. Given away at-bats are down. Pitches recognized are up. Patience was delivered to Harper in his fourth season. It has made him the game’s greatest force.

On Tuesday night, he set the Nationals’ record for walks in a season. He had not walked more than 61 times in prior years. With 120 walks entering Thursday, he is on pace to more than double his previous high. In totality, he has exploited being ahead in the count to a cartoonish level.

When Harper puts the ball in play in a 1-0 count, he is hitting .703 this season. He’s 26-for-37, with seven home runs and seven doubles, producing more extra-base hits than outs. His OPS is 2.151. Replicating those numbers when hitting off a tee would be unlikely. In a 2-0 count, Harper is hitting .364. When the count is 2-1, he’s hitting .435; when 3-1, it’s .579. A pitcher trying to get back into a count against Harper is elevator-in-an-outhouse rational. If one were to pitch around him, he would be glad he did.

For manager Matt Williams, Harper’s massive increase in walks and accompanying bump in home runs to the left of center field are results of tempered spirit. As the most-hyped teen in the country, Harper would travel from baseball showcase to baseball showcase. There, he would hit long home runs — the home runs of men, not of someone who could not legally drive. The 500-foot home run is baseball’s bling, a soaring rarity in a buttoned-up game. Moving away from constantly trying to hit such eye-widening fly balls has helped produce a season in which Harper is on base 47.2 percent of the time. The hit to left field has replaced the rollover to the right side. Reaching base in any manner has found acceptance.

“I think it’s a concerted effort on his part to be patient,” Williams said. “It’s an understanding of what he can and can’t do, which is an evolution, and understanding that 70 percent is probably better than 100 percent most of the time.

“What that means is, if he swings at 100 percent at that slider from the lefty, more times than not, he’ll probably roll that ball over and make out. If he’s 70 percent, then he tends to stay on that baseball and get a base hit. If he swings at 70 percent or 80 percent on the one he drives, it’s plenty. Doesn’t have to go 500 feet. It just has to go 380, and we’ve seen that. So, he’s starting to realize those things.”

Was that suggested or learned?

“I think he has made tremendous adjustments, I’ll leave it at that,” Williams said.

Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu uses the term “downshifting” to replace Williams‘ 70 percent anecdote. He points to health, too. Last April, Harper was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of a sprained left thumb. He needed surgery. When he returned in July, he hit .228 for the month. He didn’t look right until the playoffs. Schu suggested Harper’s healed hand has allowed him to let a pitch travel without fear of ringing pain from being jammed.

“He didn’t want to get jammed, so he was always out trying to hook,” Schu said.

In 2014, 15.4 percent of his home runs were to the left of center field. That number has more than doubled to 31.7 percent this season. A spray chart of his hits shows widespread damage.

There’s more.

Harper is hitting .320 against left-handed pitchers this season, neutralizing late-game matchup efforts. He’s also been slump-proof. Until Thursday, Harper had not gone hitless for more than two consecutive games.

There’s still more.

The list of players who led their league in triple-slash statistics — batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage — at age 22, like Harper is, consists of three names: Williams, Musial and Ty Cobb. Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays never had an OPS higher than Harper’s current 1.141. It is Williams‘ 1941 season that is keeping Harper from 22-year-old gold. Williams hit .406 that season as a 22-year-old, passing a mark that has not been broken since. More astonishing was that he walked 147 times and struck out 27. It hardly seems possible.

The rhythmic construction of Harper’s history-making year occurs out of the public eye. Earlier in the season, he began taking indoor batting practice before games, eschewing the traditional on-field swings. Harper works with Ali Modami, the Nationals’ batting practice pitcher, Sam Palace, the bullpen catcher, and Schu. Every day, he manages a routine he said is a throwback to the work he did with his father, Ron. He hits off a tee. He swats beans in one drill, works his top and bottom hands with single-arm swings. He faces live left-handed pitching from Modami each day. The work is done in the batting cage, which he thinks promotes contact as opposed to batting practice, which can promote attempts to show off.

“There’s certain things that I do,” Harper said. “They work for me, so it’s maybe not for everybody. Things I do down there, I try to stay within myself and stay with that every single day. It’s been working, so keep with it.”

A red glove sitting atop Harper’s locker has the word “Positive” stitched into it. No successful athlete knows failure like a baseball player. Harper, at times, appears on the cusp of combustion, irritated with himself or an umpire’s call. He knows his words can generate heat, like when he asked, “Where’s my ring?” prior to the season, or when he chided fans for leaving early late in the season, or when he called closer and teammate Jonathan Papelbon’s beaning of the Baltimore Orioles‘ Manny Machado “tired” on Wednesday night. Managing his words and swing will be perpetual challenges.

Though, through this season, he’s maintained. Talk about him running too fast toward walls or too slow on the way to first has been replaced by gasps and celebratory hair flips. The main sound around him is the one that counts the most, a repeated bat crack of historical sweetness. It has resulted in a modern-day star fulfilling expectations, which is even more rare than the numbers themselves.

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