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May 15, 2019

Kevin Cooney: Bryce Harper's recent slump shouldn't be a surprise — or a cause for concern

It is not a perfect comparison and Matt Klentak was the first one to acknowledge that on a chilled and gray Tuesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.

But as the Phillies general manager fielded question after question about Bryce Harper’s struggles — more specifically his .222 batting average coming into Tuesday night’s 6-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers — he referenced back to his first year in sunny Anaheim as an assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Angels.

It was that year — 2012 — that the Angels signed Albert Pujols to an enormous contract. Pujols was 32 at the time he signed at 10-year, $210 million contract. He, like Harper, hit a major funk early in the season.

And that’s where Klentak’s perspective was focused.

“In the middle of May of that year, Albert Pujols was OPS’ing .510,” Klentak said. “Bryce Harper is OPS-ing .800 [heading into Tuesday]. Bryce Harper has OPS of .800 in some years. I don’t think what we are seeing is out of whack for him. I think we’re going to see better stretches.”

Pujols finished with an OPS of .859. It has proven to be his best season as an Angel with 30 homers and 105 RBIs.

Of course, people who were looking for clickbait in national circles seemed to be drawn to Harper’s slump like a moth to a flame. When a player signs for $330 million over 13 years, the urge to snap judgment is great from those waiting to pounce.

Then again, Klentak and the Phillies have every right to play the long game with Harper.

“He’s leading our team and doubles and still has a .370 on base percentage,” Klentak said. “He’s still making big plays in right field to win games like he did [on Monday night]."

The reality is that what you are seeing from Bryce Harper 41 games into the 2019 season with the Phillies is pretty much the Bryce Harper that has been in place for most of his career. The exact numbers may not be the same, but the pattern is still there that fits what has happened in the previous six seasons.

Harper’s career splits in March and April are impressive: .298 average; 1.025 OPS, 47 homers, 132 RBIs in 179 games in baseball’s opening month. (Harper has 160 strikeouts and 145 walks in the month.)

But when the flowers bloom, Harper drops off a cliff. His career May numbers: .248 coming into Tuesday night with a .898 on-base/slugging percentage and 41 homers and 96 RBIs. His strikeout/walk ratio is more pronounced — 141 strikeouts to 106 walks in 159 games.

Why? That’s a question that can be tougher to figure out. Usually, hitters tend to warm up as the weather gets more favorable, but that’s not always the case. A theory is that the first month feels big because the pattern of a baseball season has not fully set in. By May and June, the slog is real and the single ability to lose focus as pitchers make adjustments based on the early samples.

Those are the big picture numbers. The more micro numbers are the ones that clearly sends tongues wagging — 54 strikeouts in just 40 games. That is a concern because that doesn’t fit the pattern for Harper.

Here’s the strikeout numbers for Harper in his first 40 games of a season:


* Spent two months on DL  |  ** Called up at end of April

There’s no easy explanation for this. One logic is that Harper is trying to jerk everything into the right field bleachers at Citizens Bank Park. Coming into Tuesday, however, Harper had the exact same amount of strikeouts at home (27) as on the road in four more games.

The more likely scenario, however, is he’s just trying to do too much. This was a problem for Harper last season in the year before his big free-agent contract. His first half of 2018 was, at times, brutal to watch. Part of that could have been Harper pressing for the double whammy of a contract and trying to make an appearance in the All-Star Game that was taking place at Nationals Park in July.

One thing that will help both Harper and the Phillies is that he doesn’t have to carry this lineup on his own. The Philadelphia lineup may have him as a centerpiece, but he’s not the lone piece. He has time to get this right and change whatever it could be- swing issues, internal pressure, whatever.

It can be frustrating to watch. But Bryce Harper isn’t the first free agent to struggle during his first season. And he isn’t likely to be the one who never comes out of it, either.

Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinCooney

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