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April 08, 2017

Bryce Harper really likes Philadelphia. Just ask him.

Maybe it was a silly question, since it came before Game 5 of the 2017 season and the guy hitting behind the player in question is a pretty formidable hitter in his own right, finishing second in the National League MVP voting last fall.

But should the Phillies consider changing their approach when Bryce Harper comes to the plate at Citizens Bank Park?

Here’s why it was at least worth asking: since the start of the 2015 season, Harper is slashing .351/.433/.860 with nine home runs in the 15 games he’s played inside the Phillies' home ballpark.

I love coming in here and playing in this park, being able to play in front of these fans. I enjoy being in Philly for a few days and playing against great Phillies teams.

Harper, the third batter to step to the plate at Citizens Bank Park in 2017, naturally homered in his first at-bat on Friday. Daniel Murphy, who hits fourth and behind in the Washington Nationals lineup, also homered later in the game.

“What it boils down to is this: if you make your pitches, we certainly have a game plan and we know how to get him out,” manager Pete Mackanin said prior to Saturday’s game against Harper and the Nats. “But it’s up to the pitcher to make pitches. [Jeanmar] Gomez struck him out with a backfoot slider [in the ninth innings on Friday] and pitched him extremely well. … I remember Joely [Rodriguez] striking him out [last year] with a perfect slider. You can’t hit a nasty slider. That’s what our pitchers have to do. At the major league level, you have to be good to pitch here and hit here.”

But perhaps that need to be just a bit more comfortable with Harper than they are with the average hitter. As we shared yesterday, Harper is averaging a home run in every 6.33 at-bats at Citizens Bank Park in the last three seasons. For a frame of reference, Barry Bonds averaged a home run in every 6.52 at-bats during the 2001 season, when he hit a record 73 home runs.

Harper is ridiculously comfortable at Citizens Bank Park.

“I just feel really good here,” said Harper, who has 12 career home runs at CBP, more than he’s hit in any ballpark other than Nationals Park. “Ever since I came up in 2012, I felt great. It’s a fun place to play, a fun ballpark to play in. You see the ball pretty well here. I just let the rest take care of itself, I guess.”

It’s a fun place to play, huh? They seem to boo you guys pretty good here, Bryce.

“I feel like every single park we go to [we’re that way], pretty … not liked,” Harper said with a grin. “I don’t know. I love coming in here and playing in this park, being able to play in front of these fans. I enjoy being in Philly for a few days and playing against great Phillies teams.”

The Phillies have not been “great” in a while, but you have to remember Harper broke into the big leagues when Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee were in the starting rotation and when the Phils were coming off a 102-win season.

But we know what you’re thinking now. Philadelphia is “a fun place to play,” according to one Bryce Harper. And he still recalls the “great Phillies teams” of the not-so-distant past.

Fine, Bryce, we’ll bite, without asking the obvious question (which would illicit the obvious answer – no player is ever going to eliminate any team as a possible future free agent bidder/employer). With due respect to your current team, and knowing you’re not a free agent until after the 2018 season, do you at least have a preference between the National and American Leagues?

When Harper does become a free agent (the Nats may try to prevent that still, but only may have more success doing so if they can advance to a World Series in one of the next two years), the New York Yankees will be among the many big-spending teams lined up. Like the Phillies, the Yankees have set themselves up quite well for the Winter Free Agent Bonanza of 2018-19, ridding themselves of troublesome long-term contracts and giving themselves financial flexibility.

And it’s probably worth mentioning the Dodgers (among others) here, too. Although they have currently own baseball’s richest payroll, the Dodgers currently have just $107.5 million allocated for their 2019 payroll – and that’s only if Clayton Kershaw does not decide to opt out of his current deal and join that aforementioned star-studded 2018-19 free agent class. 

Last month, MLB insider Jon Heyman, putting the pieces together a bit like we're doing here, listed the Phillies, Yankees, Cubs and Dodgers as the very early contenders for Harper's free agent services.

So, let’s circle back to Harper now and ask him the American League-National League preference question. 

“I mean baseball is such a great game that you can’t look at it like National League vs. American League, but I do enjoy the fact that National League games aren’t nine hours long,” Harper said with a laugh. “Compared to the American League. I don’t mind the [designated hitter], but I know how well our pitchers can swing the bat and how much pitchers do like to swing the bat, so I like that as well. But like I said, it’s not fun to play nine hours game like they do over there in the American League."

So you’re an old-fashioned baseball guy who likes for a lineup to have a starting point and ending point, for the game to have a more natural flow?

“One hundred percent. I enjoy that,” he said. “I do like the National League, how it works. But other than that, baseball is baseball.”

Bryce Harper likes the National League, the Phillies ballpark, and has fond memories of watching those great Phillies teams. You have to think John Middleton and the Phillies ownership group have to enjoy hearing about that, huh?

Bryce Harper's last 15 games at Citizens Bank Park (entering Saturday)

 4/10/15 4 1 0 0 03/0 
4/11/15  3 0 0 0 0 1/2
4/12/15  5 1 1 1 0/0
6/28/15  1 0 0 1/1
9/14/15  2 1 0 1 1/1
9/15/15  3 3 2 4 0/1
9/16/15  2 1 2 1/0
 4/15/16 3 1 2 0/0
4/16/16  2 1 0/0
4/17/16  2 1 1 1/1
5/30/16  0 0 1/0
8/29/16  0 0 0/1
8/30/16  1 0 1 1 0/0
8/31/16  0 0 0 1/0
4/7/17  4 2 1 2 2/1

The cumulative totals during that span: .351 BA, .433 OBP, .860 SLG, with 9 HR, 17 RBI, 2 2B, 12 K, 8 BB in 15 games.

But let’s take at least a tiny step back for a second. The Phillies are in Year Three of their methodical rebuild. They added a few veterans to a modest payroll ($111.378 million) this offseason, but weren't in on any big-name talent this winter because they understand their team isn't quite ready to contend, and one or two players are not putting them over the top.

What the Phillies do have is a Triple-A lineup stacked with hitting prospects and, down in Lakewood, N.J., they have a couple of teenagers in Mickey Moniak and Sixto Sanchez who could be better than any other players in their current system when it’s all said and done.

When these prospects begin graduating to the big leagues, the Phillies front office and ownership group will be more than happy to supplement a young core with expensive, premium All-Star talent. The only payroll commitment they have beyond this year is Odubel Herrera's team-friendly contract.

“That time is coming," general manager Matt Klentak said prior to Friday’s game. “I have no question whatsoever that our ownership group will make the necessary investments. It's up to us as management to identify when the right time for that is. That time is coming. It's a matter of whether it's this coming offseason or the following year. It's not limited to free agency. We could just as easily make an investment in the form of a trade acquiring a big contract. Right now, it's the fourth game of the season. We've got some time to think about that this year.”

Perhaps the time coming is that free agent class of 2018-19, when Harper will be joined on the open market by Josh Donaldson, Adam Jones, Andrew McCutchen, Manny Machado, and perhaps Kershaw, too, among others. Interesting note: four Phillies front office executives, including Klentak and team president Andy MacPhail, were in the Baltimore front office when the Orioles selected Machado with the third overall pick in the 2010 draft (two picks after Harper went No.1 overall).

Or perhaps the Phillies will add a big piece this winter (Eric Hosmer, Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gonzalez, and Todd Frazier are scheduled to be a part of the upcoming free agent class). Or maybe they’ll also consider adding young stars on the rise via trade, as Klentak himself offered as an option. (Although put the Mike Trout daydreams aside, it's really, really difficult to imagine the Angels considering trading a guy under contract through 2020, a guy who they could never get equal value in return for through a trade). 

Until then – or at least for the next two seasons, this year and next – the Phillies ownership group can only daydream about guys like Bryce Harper while the coaching staff and pitching staff try to keep him from destroying baseballs at Citizens Bank Park.

“If a pitcher makes quality pitches, you will get guys out,” Mackanin said. “If you make mistakes, the good hitters like Harper, with poorly located pitches, they don’t miss them. You may get lucky once in a while, but you have to think about who is coming up after him and he’s a damn good hitter.

“If you make pitches, you’ll get them. If you don’t, you won’t. We’re talking about wanting to pitch him any differently? We have the right game plan, but you have to execute.”

Either the Phillies have failed to execute against Harper for the better part of the last three seasons, or he’s just that good. Whatever it is, it’s not hard to understand why Harper is having so much fun playing games in Philly.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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