WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Bryce Harper is over it.
He’s over his monstrously disappointing 2016 season. He’s over the Wrigley Field walk-a-thon that may or may not have caused it. He’s over the allegedly lingering injury that may or may not have caused it. He’s over yet another early playoff exit for the Washington Nationals. He says he’s over all of it. Maybe it’s time for everyone to start listening.
“It’s 'What have you done for me lately?'” Harper said Saturday morning. “Everybody knows that. Of course, you guys in the media know that better than anybody.”
Standing on a turf agility field as he addressed reporters for the first time since last season, Harper wore a red T-shirt with the words "warm body, cold mind," perhaps an indication of where his head is at entering the 2017 season.
“I like that feeling of 'What have you done for me lately?' and how we go about it that next day. If you’re 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, you’re only as good as your last at-bat," Harper said. "So I guess ripping a single through the hole against [Kenley] Jansen, I guess I’m pretty dang good.”
The at-bat that Harper is referring to, his last official one of the 2016 season, came in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. It ended with the Nats slugger lining a base hit to left field off Jansen, the NL’s most dominant closer. So what if Harper hit just .211 for the series. So what if he slugged .441 on the season, more than a 200-point drop from the year before. So what if his WAR fell from 9.9 to 1.6, the largest drop-off ever for a reigning MVP. As far as Harper’s concerned, he’s a lifetime 1.000 hitter. Because you’re only as good as your last at-bat.
As corny as Harper’s sound bite may seem, it’s as revealing as anything that came out of his mouth during Saturday’s 12-minute State-of-the-Bryce address. Whether or not it’s true -- whether he really spent the past four months basing his value on that final at-bat as opposed to the other 523 that came before it -- doesn’t really matter. What does matter is this: The Bryce Harper who showed up to the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches this week, sporting a Cowboys hat and a noticeably bulked-up frame and doling out hugs for one and all, has the appearance of someone who’s completely healthy, both in body and mind. Whether that was the case last season, only Harper knows.
“I know exactly why,” he said without hesitating, when asked what led to his down year.
Given that he sat out five games in August with a neck issue, and given the reports that surfaced in September saying he’d been nursing an injury throughout the season, it seemed as though Harper was about to come clean. Like he was about to fess up and say, “Yep, I played hurt the whole season.” Either that or, “Nope, the injury had nothing to do with it, and really it was all about that May series at Wrigley when Joe Maddon messed with my head by walking me more than a Jack Russell terrier with a urinary tract infection.”
Instead, Harper changed course, choosing to talk about how Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner are both MVP-caliber players. A few minutes later, when pressed on the subject of what exactly happened last year, he said: “I stayed in the lineup, tried to play 150 games, went in to Dusty [Baker] and wanted to play every single day. I was able to do that and hopefully help this team perform. That's what I'm going to do every single day this year.”
While Harper stopped short of actually saying he was injured, that would certainly appear to be the subtext. And it would make sense. After all, he’s a young, high-octane player who’s still learning when to dial it down and who, in the two years before his MVP season, missed more than a hundred combined games.
“There’s times where he thinks he has no kryptonite,” one NL scout said of Harper. “I just want him to understand a little bit more how it works for his own sake so there’s a level of longevity. He’s better than most people at 70 percent, but I’d like to see at least 90 percent, because then we’re seeing the guy that’s a game-changer.”
So if Harper really was injured, then why not just come right out and say it? Doing so would seem to only help his value by giving GMs another explanation for the down year besides thinking that, well, maybe Bryce Harper simply isn’t as good as everyone thought he was. Then again, admitting injury could serve as further evidence that, for one reason or another, the former No. 1 pick can’t stay healthy, thereby driving his value down. Regardless of what happened last season, regardless of why his production plummeted, Harper’s offseason messaging suggests that he has moved on.
No sooner had the higher-seeded Nationals been bounced from the postseason (their third consecutive exit as a favorite over the past five years) did Harper appear to get on with the business of living what seems to be, from the outside, significantly more than a semi-charmed life. He pressed palms with fellow hair Hall of Famer Zayn at the American Music Awards. He hung out with Coach K & Co. after a Duke hoops game. He got married and honeymooned in Cabo. That’s not to say he wasn’t sweating -- between the 500-pound dead lifts and the recurring workouts at his old high school, there was plenty of punching the clock. But it’s the play that really sticks out. It’s the play that seems to speak loudest about where Harper’s head is at right now and, perhaps more importantly, where it was over the past few months.
If you’re a Nationals fan and/or a Harper fan and/or a baseball purist, maybe this bothers you. Maybe you’d prefer to see Harper stew long and hard over his down year instead of casually moving on and reminding us that there’s more to life than just sports.
But that’s part of the beauty of Harper. We think we want to see Max Scherzer be all melancholy after a rocky start (which he typically is, perhaps because he thinks that’s what we want to see from a guy who’s making $30 million a year), and that Harper being glib after a bad loss (or worse, a bad year) is not at all what the doctor ordered. But the truth is, no matter what happens between the lines, baseball alone doesn’t define Harper. He knows it, and we know it. And that’s why, even after the most taxing season of his baseball-playing life, he had as much fun as ever.
“It's more of an emotional roller coaster for you guys than it is for me,” Harper told reporters toward the end of his presser on Saturday. “I enjoy what I do. I'm 24 years old, living my dream every single day. I enjoy playing in the city of D.C., I enjoy going back home and enjoying my family in the offseason. I was able to marry my beautiful bride this offseason as well. So everybody that said I was worried about baseball this offseason, I couldn’t care less.”
In other words, Harper is over it.
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