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May 06, 2019

Paul Hagen: Some advice, do not worry about Bryce Harper

Righthander Zach Eflin had another strong start. Rhys Hoskins knocked in a couple more runs, giving him 31 in the first 33 games. The first-place Phillies packed up to go to St. Louis and Kansas City after a successful homestand that ended with a win over the division rival Nationals.

So, of course, the lead item on the CBS sports recap immediately after 60 Minutes Sunday night got right to the point. “The Phillies and Bryce Harper defeated his old team. . .”

Jeez. Harper had a single in five at bats. He’s been slumping. It’s not like he didn’t chip in at all, but he certainly wasn’t the headline.

Except that, of course, he’s always going to be an integral part of the story line. That’s what happens when you sign one of the most monumental contracts in baseball history after one of the most anticipated free agencies in years. A free agency that results in a months-long negotiation with more twists and turns than an Alfred Hitchcock story. Or a Swiss mountain road. Or an Alfred Hitchcock story set on a Swiss mountain road.

You get private jets. You get unconditional adoration from the home crowd, at least for awhile. You get an unfathomable amount of money.

And you get a chance to personally experience the old adage that the higher you climb the flagpole, the more people can see your rear end.

Look, the thinking here is that Harper is uniquely qualified to thrive in the middle of a maelstrom. He may still be only 26 years old, but it’s been a decade now since he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was the first player drafted overall in 2010 and was still a teenager when he made it to the big leagues two years later. When, naturally, he was voted the National League Rookie of the Year.

So, no, being the center of attention isn’t going to fluster him. He’s been under a microscope his entire adult life. And even when the attention takes the form of boos – which he heard at Citizens Bank Park last week after striking out twice in a game – he seems to be able to roll with it.

Fans have every right to voice their displeasure, by the way. Although this seemed a little premature considering that at least some of those exercising both their lungs and their Constitutional rights were probably the same folks who stood in line to buy his jersey a few weeks earlier.

But what does seem really silly, especially in a city that prides itself on being tough but knowledgeable, is a question that’s starting to bubble up around town. In so many words, is it time to worry about Harper’s performance? Michael Barkann even tossed a version of that at Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt during Sunday’s postgame postmortem and then returned to the subject with Ben Davis in the studio.

Spoiler alert: As tempting as it is to chase that possibility down the rabbit hole just to watch people’s heads explode, it would also be irresponsible. And here are some of the reasons why.

As bad as his numbers have been lately – a .188 batting average with a .659 OPS including 28 strikeouts in 80 at bats since his fast start – let’s just look at where his overall numbers are. That would be .233 with a .841 OPS and six home runs.

Then let’s look at where he was exactly four years ago Monday, going into a game against the Marlins at Nationals Park. He was hitting .245 with an .862 OPS, five homers and a ton of strikeouts: 36 in 94 at bats. There was some quiet grumbling that he might never be the player the baseball world thought he was going to be.

He launched three home runs that afternoon and ended up winning the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

So, happy anniversary.

Now, nobody’s suggesting that history will repeat itself exactly this year. But there’s a hell of a lot better chance of that happening than him continuing in this funk for the rest of the season.

Stranger things have happened in baseball, but he should be entering the prime years of his career. He takes great care of himself. He has a track record. And while he’s always been streaky, there’s no reason to believe that at the end of the year his numbers won’t be at least around his career averages. Which would be around .280 with 30 to 35 homers, at last 90 RBI and a .900 OPS. Maybe a little better because, again, he should be coming into his best years.

This is just a hunch, but here’s another reason why Harper should be just fine. Through it all, he’s continued to walk. In fact, he leads the league with 25. If Rhys Hoskins stays hot, at some point you’d think pitchers are going to have to start throwing Harper more strikes. Which can only help him.

This is only an issue because he’s in the process of making $330 million. It puts a target on his back. I get it. Harper gets it. But that doesn’t mean we have to fire off an arrow every time he strikes out.

“He’ll snap out of it. I don’t have a worry in the world about Bruce Harper,” Schmidt told Barkann.

That’s the right answer. And if it’s not, well, we’ll all have plenty of time to discuss that over the next 13 years.