If there’s one game that sums up what’s been a weird season for Bryce Harper, it’s probably last night’s contest between the Phillies and Brewers.
First, the bad: Harper went 0-for-4 at the plate and struck out in his first three at-bats. Because Philly is Philly, the home fans rained a smattering of boos on him after the third punchout. This is something they’ve been doing with somewhat alarming frequency.
And now the good: With the score tied 4-4, Mike Moustakas came to the plate for the Brewers with two outs and the bases loaded. He ripped a pitch into right field that seemed destined to clear the bases, until Harper came up with a diving catch:
The Phillies went on to win the game 7-4, a tidy score that allows us to call Harper’s diving a grab a game-saving one.
This is basically how it’s been all season for Harper—a few fantastic, game-changing highlights sprinkled among a lot of empty at-bats and a lot of strikeouts. With last night’s trio of punchouts, Harper now has a league-leading 54 strikeouts to his name. He’s had 19 games in which he’s struck out multiple times, and he’s currently being sat down in 30 percent of his at-bats, a career-worst rate. All of this has contributed to his uninspiring .222/.367/.438 slash line.
You can understand why Phillies fans might be inclined to boo this man. Here is the player who signed a massive deal and was supposed to lead a rising young team into MLB’s elite class, and all they’ve really seen out of him so far is a game modeled after Mark Reynolds’s. Slumps happen to even the best players, and should be forgiven, but there’s a difference between watching a guy repeatedly go 0-for while hitting the ball into the defense and watching a guy strike out multiple times per game. That guy is supposed to hit the ball! It’s frustrating when he doesn’t!
And yet, look at where the Phillies are: first place in the NL East with a 3.5-game lead on the Atlanta Braves. Even Harper, mired in an extended slump, hasn’t been a complete waste. He’s still managed to amass 1.1 WAR, according to FanGraphs, and he’s also just behind Mike Trout for the MLB lead in walks. The Phillies are thriving, and Harper, even with all of his struggles at the plate, has been a part of that success.
But what happens if the team’s fortunes take a downward turn and Harper keeps whiffing at such an alarming rate? The home fans are already booing him while the team is winning, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll become any kinder if the Phillies start inching towards a .500 record, or worse. Bryce, for your own sake, please just start putting the ball in play a little more often.