February 19, 2017

A WALK'S AS GOOD AS A HIT! (profanity alert)

Did Joe Maddon break Bryce Harper? (Eddie Matz, 2/15/17, ESPN)

THE THEORY GOES that everything that ailed Bryce Harper last season -- ground zero for his grounding -- can be traced back to the first weekend in May, when the Washington Nationals visited Wrigley Field for a four-game series against the Chicago Cubs. It was about as important as May baseball gets -- a potential National League Championship Series preview between the teams with the two best records in the majors, featuring Harper, the reigning player of the month. At least, that was the billing. Instead, the series featured Chicago skipper Joe Maddon totally neutralizing the slugger.

Over a span of four days against the Cubs, Harper stepped to the plate 19 times and received 13 free passes. Four of them were intentional, including three in the finale, when he tied a major league record by walking six times and became the first player ever to reach safely in all seven plate appearances of a game without recording a hit (he got plunked in his other PA). Of the 27 pitches Harper saw in the finale, he swung at exactly zero. Only two were even in the strike zone. Overall for the series, of the 83 pitches that came his way, only 18 were in the zone, for a rate of 22 percent. For comparison, that's about half as many strikes as Harper saw during his MVP year (41 percent zone rate), when he was pitched around more often than anyone not named Joey Votto. In other words, Maddon wasn't about to let Harper beat him or his team. And it worked. The Cubs swept the Nats right out of Chicago. In the process, they stole Harper's soul.

"Hitting is the funnest part of baseball," Thomas says. "That was probably the first time in Bryce's life where, for an entire series, he didn't get the opportunity to hit, where he didn't get the opportunity to compete. Some people look at it and say it was the greatest strategy of all time. Other people think it's crap because you're not competing. All I know is, when you take the bat out of somebody's hand -- especially somebody that's as competitive as Bryce is -- it's bound to have some kind of effect."

In Harper's case, it caused him to boil over immediately. Well, almost immediately. On the Sunday of the Cubs series, despite the fresh sting of emasculation still smoldering within, Harper somehow managed to rise above, giving a jar full of money to a homeless woman he spotted as the team bus was pulling out of Wrigley. But soon after that, he sank below.

On the very next day after the Chicago series -- after standing there all weekend long with the bat on his shoulder and watching helplessly while his team got the broom -- Harper blew a gasket and got ejected in the ninth inning of a tie game in Washington. But wait, there's more. When the Nats won in extras on a walk-off, Harper defied the rules by not only coming back onto the field, but also barking a few "choice words" (as he would later call them) at the umpire, all of which led to the first suspension of his career.

Over the next couple of weeks, with opposing teams seemingly copying Maddon's blueprint, Harper saw barely anything to hit. In the eight games following the Cubs series, he drew another 15 free passes, giving him an unreal total of 28 walks over a 12-game stretch. It got so bad that practically the only pitches Harper got to hit during the entire month weren't even real ones.

MAYBE YOU'VE SEEN the commercial. It's an UnderArmour spot called "Numbers," which Harper filmed the day after his suspension in May and which dropped right before the All-Star Game in July. In it, Harper stands in the batter's box of a nondescript stadium, all grimy and grunting, taking violent hack after violent hack while a series of digits flash across the screen. Atop the repeated sound of bat tearing into ball, a gritty voiceover talks about how baseball is a numbers game. The voice then proceeds to spew forth a bunch of stats -- some of which Harper has already compiled, some of which he's chasing -- then finishes by saying, "Kid, just remember: No number sounds as good as this." The punchline: One last thunderous crack of the bat.

Back in the real world, not long after his Wrigley Field walk-a-thon, Harper appeared to lose the otherworldly patience he'd demonstrated over the previous 13 months. Gone was the spit-on-it selectiveness that had been the bedrock of his MVP campaign and that had onlookers comparing him to Barry Bonds. In short, getting Maddonized wrecked him.

Posted by at February 19, 2017 1:31 PM