When Barry Bonds was drawing walks at a historic rate, Dusty Baker recalled there were times when the San Francisco Giants’ slugger would take his elbow guard off before the pitch even crossed the plate. Then in another at-bat, Bonds would crush the first or second pitch he saw into McCovey Cove or somewhere else out of reach.
Bonds, now a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins, had mastered his vision and concentration to the point where he could constantly take advantage of opponents, even if he was seeing just one good pitch a game, according to Baker, who managed the Giants from 1993-2002.
“I saw Barry get one or two pitches a night and he wouldn’t be lulled to sleep,” Baker said Monday night. “He wouldn’t miss them and he’d hit them out of the ballpark. They think they had him set up for a fastball or whatever pitch they were setting him up for and Barry, I never saw him ever get frustrated about being walked.”
The challenge for Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper, who has been walked a league-high 48 times entering Tuesday, is harnessing that same approach. Pitchers have been staying away from the reigning National League MVP and Harper is struggling to take advantage of the few good pitches he sees. As a result, the Mets went after him on Monday and he was 0-for-4, which lowered his batting average to .252. Since April 27, the 23-year-old is batting .183 with one double, two home runs, six RBI and 25 strikeouts. In those 109 plate appearances, he’s also been walked 35 times.
“You have to understand that they’re going to give you maybe one pitch a game, two pitches a game and if you don’t damage on it, it’s your fault,” Harper said. “You’re going to try to go into every at-bat thinking they’re going to try to throw strikes and if they don’t, you try to take your walk and let the guy behind you do their job. I’m not doing the job of hitting that one pitch.”
In Harper’s third at-bat Monday, Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon threw a 2-1 sinker. Harper grounded out to second base. His final at-bat came against reliever Jerry Blevins and Harper lamented watching a first-pitch strike go by before he grounded out to third base two pitches later.
“He’s kind of in between,” Baker said. “He’s ahead of breaking balls, off-speed pitches and he’s behind on fastballs. You know, it’s about vision and recognition. Right now … I’ve been there, everyone’s been there. When you’re hitting good, the ball looks like a beach ball and when you’re not swinging good, it looks like a golf ball. He’ll get it, because this guy has tremendous eyes and hand-eye coordination. It just happens to be Bryce Harper and he’s spoiled us all.”
Harper reiterated that he “feels great,” at the plate. Nearly an hour after the Nationals’ game ended Monday night, Harper walked into the clubhouse in full uniform, hat backward and his bat in his hands. He wouldn’t say whether he went straight to the batting cage after the game, but he certainly didn’t look like he just came in from an extra session of shagging fly balls.
Harper decided last season to take batting practice indoors only, hitting in the batting cage and following the same routine daily. He felt the indoor work kept him from trying to put on a show at batting practice, which could lead to bad habits. Tuesday, he was on the field early to take batting practice around 3 p.m. Hitting coach Rick Schu pitched to him. Assistant hitting coach Jacque Jones watched from behind the batting cage.
Baker is confident that Harper will turn around from this recent slump. When Bonds was crushing the ball despite drawing walks at a preposterous rate, he was a 32-year-old seasoned veteran. Like Bonds learned to deal with limited chances, Baker believes Harper will too.
“I think he’s handling it pretty well,” Baker said. “How many times can you say hang with him, or how many times can you pat a guy on the back? All you can do right now is give him some love, and right now the one thing that is not giving him love is his bat. That’s what gives a hitter love is his bat when he’s hitting the ball hard. So, right now he needs some understanding and love from all us. Heck, he’ll come out of it.”