Stars hope to bounce back
By Howard Fendrich
The Associated Press
Normally, a home run by Bryce Harper in his first Grapefruit League at-bat would pass relatively unnoticed. So, too, would the more than half-dozen other balls he sent over fences during exhibition games this spring for the Washington Nationals.
After all, Harper has demonstrated that he is quite capable of being a pre-eminent slugger, even becoming the youngest MVP in major league history in 2015. Last year was a different story altogether, though.
Whether because of injury or other reasons — it’s never been made 100 percent clear — he went from 42 homers to 24, from a .330 batting average to .243, from a 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging to .814.
Harper is one of several significant major leaguers hoping to bounce back this season, a group that includes Jason Heyward of the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs, past Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros and former MVPs Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants and Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“The best thing about Bryce’s year last year is that he didn’t have a ‘typical Bryce Harper year,’ and we still won 95 games. When he goes back to having his typical year — which he will — we should improve,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said.
“The secret is: Go about your routine. Water seeks its level. Harper’s going to be Harper,” Rizzo said. “He’s going to hit in the middle of our lineup. He’s going to be an MVP candidate. He’s one of the great players in all of baseball. He’s in the team photo for ‘Most Elite Players in the Game.'”
And, well, it’s not as if Rizzo — or anyone else, for that matter — is concerned about Harper getting down on himself.
“I think everybody knows,” Harper said, “I always have confidence.”
Slumps are a fact of life in baseball, with its 162-game grind and the idea that, as Rizzo put it, “There’s a reason we always talk about averages.”
“I don’t know anybody that’s gone his whole career without getting in a hole,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said.
The key, of course, is turning things back around. There is no magic formula or a standard reason for why a player might take a step back one year, then get on track the next.
Everybody is different, of course, so it could be as simple as returning to health or finding a mechanical flaw that can be rectified.
Sometimes it’s a matter of sticking with what’s been successful in the past and banking on the notion that one mediocre-for-you year was an aberration.
In Heyward’s case, the hope is that a subtle adjustment to the way he gets ready to swing — re-gripping the bat during the pitcher’s windup — could get him back to the guy who hit 27 homers in 2012, instead of the one who finished with seven last year and was even benched during the Fall Classic.
“It’s something that I’ve done before,” he said of leaning on a familiar batting approach. “There’s plenty of video to look at, plenty of games to look at, where this is what I’ve been.”
Managers, GMs, hitting coaches, pitching coaches or teammates of those trying to right themselves also need to know how much, or how little, to try to help.
“I attempt to not muddy the waters,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “If I have something that I’m seeing, I’ll take it to (a hitting coach) and have them bring it to him. … Been around situations where too many guys want to be involved in the solution and they just want to have the player eventually say, ‘This guy helped me, helped me become good again.’ That is such a bad mindset to coach from.”
Harper’s teammate, Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, is a career .278 hitter with six 20-homer seasons (and a high of 33) who batted a career-worst .218 with 15 homers in 2016. So he did what more and more players are doing these days to try to rebound: He took a look at analytics.
What he discovered was that his exit velocity was good, but his launch angle was not ideal.
“I was hitting the ball hard, but I wasn’t hitting it in the air, essentially wasting how hard I hit it,” Zimmerman said. “So I needed to change that.”
“It wasn’t for lack of effort,” he said. “Nobody likes to fail. Nobody likes to have a bad year. But I knew I did everything I could. For whatever reason, what happened, happened. Now I need to move on.”
Among others who want to move on: Keuchel, who went 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA before being sidelined by shoulder inflammation; McCutchen, who paired a career-low .256 average with a career-high 143 strikeouts; Posey, whose batting average slid 30 points to .288 and who hit 14 homers; and Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who batted .240 with 140 strikeouts in 413 at-bats.
Stanton had a hard time ignoring outside breaking balls and often wound up swinging at pitches that were impossible to hit.
“Not one to remember for the good, I’ll tell you that,” he said about last season. “I didn’t take too many positives from my aspect of it. But definitely, you learn some things the hard way and look back at what went wrong and get stronger from it.”