In Case You Forgot, Bryce Harper is the Straw that Stirs the Phillies' Drink
Bryce Harper is, was, and always will be thankful that he’s been able to play the sport of baseball at the highest level in 2023.
After sacrificing all of what he normally does to prepare for a baseball season – his rigorous offseason workouts, his intense hitting work in the batting cages during Spring Training, and then missing the opening month-plus of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, he’s felt that just being able to get back playing has been a blessing.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been frustrated at times. Hell, there were a few times this season where it was evident he was reaching new levels of frustration.
Harper wears his heart on his sleeve, and when he’s not living up to his own, lofty standards, we all get to share in the experience. Whether it’s an angry reaction to a bad swing, or a throwing of equipment, or a self-deprecating interview in the clubhouse, we’re always along for the emotional ride with him.
In many ways, that’s just how Harper wants it to be. He wants everyone to be as invested in his performance as he is, and in turn, he wants to share that with his adopted city. He wants Philadelphia fans to be his ride-or-die. He wants them to have his back when he’s going through a tough time, and in turn, he wants to hold himself accountable to these fans by always striving to exceed expectations, which is even harder to do when you are one of the faces of the sport.
Today’s postgame snack: wagyu pic.twitter.com/xse32xAEm8
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) September 23, 2023
When Harper went into the All-Star break sporting the longest drought in his career without a home run – 37 games – there was a question if his power had been zapped. That the surgery on his elbow was, in fact, his kryptonite.
The Phillies opened the second half of the season on July 15 with a doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park against the San Diego Padres.
In the first game, Harper was not in the lineup. It was a curious situation, but there were a number of factors at play:
- He was not yet ready to play first base, although he had been practicing, it would still be another week before he felt comfortable enough to give it a shot.
- Manager Rob Thomson wanted Kyle Schwarber’s bat in the lineup for both games, but didn’t want him in left field for both games, and since Harper could only DH, Schwarber had to DH a game if he wasn’t going to be in the field, so Harper, who was in a prolonged power slump, would sit.
- Probable N.L. Cy Young winner Blake Snell was on the mound for the Padres. He’s a tough left and also the guy who broke Harper’s thumb in 2022 when he hit hit with a pitch on his hand.
So Harper sat there and watched. He was actually getting treatment at the very beginning of the game, and missed the incredible catch made by Johan Rojas on the first ball hit to him in his Major League debut, but otherwise Harper saw his team fall behind early, battle back to tie the score, only to give it back up again in the top of the eighth.
With two runners on in the bottom of the eighth, Thomson turned to Harper to pinch hit for Rojas, and he delivered a single to score the tying run. The Phillies would go on to to score twice more and win the game 6-4.
It still wasn’t a home run, but it was a clutch hit. It was a reminder that Harper is still a red light player, coming through in those biggest moments when all eyes are on him. Here was the first time these two teams had met since the 2022 NLCS, and here was Harper, in the bottom of the eighth at Citizens Bank Park, with his team trailing, again, just like in Game 5 of that NLCS, and here he was delivering a big hit.
It brought back a feeling for Harper. One that had certainly been missing in this home run drought. A feeling that it’s still there. It’s only a matter of time.
In Game 2, Harper was the DH. The first plate appearance against Padres starter Ryan Weathers resulted in a walk. The second, resulted in a homer.
The drought was over. In the 38 games without a dinger, Harper was a shell of himself. He was still getting on base, mostly via walks, but from May 26 through that first game of the doubleheader, Harper slashed .264/.360/.321 in a span of 38 games with no homers, 17 RBI and a .681 OPS. It was basically the equivalent of a replacement-level player with a good eye.
But that homer against Weathers. That was the one he needed to catapult him forward to being the Bryce Harper we’ve all come to expect.
Except, it wasn’t. At least not, right away.
Harper said after the game that we, in the media, like to focus on home runs, but that he doesn’t go out there to try to hit home runs.
Over the course of the next 18 games, from July 16 through August 4, Harper would only hit one more home run – a game-tying homer off former teammate Kyle Gibson in the sixth inning of a game against the Baltimore Orioles on July 25.
The over all numbers were otherwise, more of the same from that 38-game drought:
.264/.346/.347 with one homer and seven RBI for an OPS of .693
This isn’t that small of a sample size either. It’s a third of season.
After going 0-for-4 with a walk in an ugly loss to the bottom-feeding Kansas City Royals on August 4 (the first night of the Trea Turner standing ovations), Harper had had enough. The walks were nice, and they were still going to come, but he was going to go out the next night, be aggressive on pitches in the zone and just see what happens.
First at bat – single. Second at bat – double. Third at bat – home run.
From there, he hasn’t slowed down.
Since that game, Harper has slashed .297/.424/.658 with 15 homers and 37 RBI in 44 games for an OPS of 1.082.
Just for some perspective, 15 home runs in 44 games is a 55-home run pace over the course of a full season.
The most recent home run came Saturday, in a 7-5 win over the New York Mets, that put the Phillies on the brink of securing a playoff spot for successive seasons for the first time since winning five straight N.L. East crowns from 2007-2011.
Bryce Harper gets his 20th home run of the season with a BANG. 💥
— theScore (@theScore) September 23, 2023
This was a monster home run considering the wind from Tropical Storm Ophelia was blowing in hard from right center.
It was also his 20th of the season, the ninth time he has reached the 20 home run in a season in his career.
And guess what? Harper had no problem talking about hitting homers.
“I’m very fortunate to be where I am right now after what I went through in the offseason and with rehab,” Harper said. “This is all just a bonus for me. I’m very, very happy with getting 20 home runs. We have a few more games so hopefully I can get a few more.”
Funny how playing well changes a guy, eh?
It also brought the Phillies up to five players with 20 home runs this season, something that seemed unfathomable at the beginning of August.
On June 24th:
Kyle Schwarber is currently on pace to hit 43 home runs this season.
No other Phillies hitter is on pace to hit 20 homers. JT Realmuto and Nick Castellanos next closest with each pacing at 17 homers. https://t.co/zJPHhOOxd2
— Bob Wankel (@Bob_Wankel) September 24, 2023
In fact, the Phillies have only had five guys with 20-plus homers in a season twice before in franchise history – 2007 and 2009.
Even more remarkable is the fact that they could have a sixth, which thy have never had happen in the long history of the franchise.
That’s because Alec Bohm hit his 19th homer as well on Saturday.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) September 23, 2023
It’s a stunning run of power. The Phillies have 94 homers as a team since August 5th. That’s just 45 games. It’s an average of more than two homers per game. Only the Braves, who had a ridiculous 106 homers in a 45-game span, have had more in any equal stretch by any team in baseball this season.
The Phillies are 27-18 in those 45 games, which is why they are either two wins, or one win and one loss by either the Chicago Cubs or Miami Marlins away from clinching that playoff spot, which could be as early as Sunday night.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) September 23, 2023
In those 45 games, the Phillies have scored 5.98 runs per game, which is unbelievably impressive, especially when you consider that they played three against Minnesota, two against Toronto, three against Milwaukee, three against Miami and seven against Atlanta in that stretch.
In those 45 games, every regular batter in the lineup has an OPS of .783 or above, except Bryson Stott, who got a much needed complete day off Saturday.
Here’s the usual starting nine in the last 45 games:
PLAYER AVG / OBP / SLG / OPS / HR / RBI
- Bryce Harper .297 .424 .658 1.082 15 37
- Trea Turner .333 .387 .684 1.071 16 41
- Kyle Schwarber .248 .405 .621 1.026 18 35
- Nick Castellanos .277 .303 .544 .846 12 39
- Alec Bohm .259 .319 .482 .802 9 26
- Johan Rojas .302 .343 .448 .791 2 13
- Brandon Marsh .267 .398 .387 .785 2 11
- J.T. Realmuto .263 .313 .470 .783 7 17
- Bryson Stott .226 .294 .390 .684 6 22
(NOTE: Marsh missed two weeks with a knee injury)
Technically, Harper’s homer in that Aug. 5 game off of Tucker Davidson wasn’t the first of the 94 in 45 games, Bohm actually had one earlier in that same game, but there’s no doubt that the flames of Harper’s white hot offense was sparked that day and the fire hasn’t been putout since, and most of his teammates have joined the joy ride into Red October as well.
“There’s still some things that we can clean up, but the way we’re playing right now is pretty good,” Harper said. “We talked about focusing on us and not worrying about the teams around us. Those are some good teams, but if we just keep playing our game and keep it going and get the job done.”
Not everything is rosy for the Phillies as they careen toward the post season, and Harper is right, there are some things that need to be cleaned up.
- I briefly mentioned Stott above. He got just his third full game off of the second half Saturday. You can see from the totals above that this is a prolonged slump for Stott. It’s been even worse lately. In his last 14 games he is just 8-for-51 (.157).
- If you look at Turner’s numbers above you know he’s been sensational since the infamous standing ovations. But his numbers are buoyed by the fact that he was hitting at Ruthian pace earlier in this span. Of late, Turner is really scuffling again, and that’s got to be mildly concerning for the Phillies. He’s currently in an 0-19 slump. He’s mixed in four walks, but has otherwise not been productive. His RBI on a fielder’s choice Saturday was his first RBI in 10 games. The only positive to be taken from this is that despite the big 0-fer, Turner has only struck out twice. When he was going bad before, he was chasing pitches. So, he’s making contact, it’s just not good contact.
- Marsh is another guy who is scuffling. Since Sept. 10 he is 4-for-31 (.129) with 19 strikeouts. In a smaller sample, he’s 0-for-13 with seven strikeouts. He has walked six times in that same span, though.
- Gregory Soto has been an enigma for the Phillies. He’s either looked really good, or really bad. And it’s wildly inconsistent. Want to see how? Just look at Saturday. He didn’t give up a run, but in the eighth inning he faced five batters. He got three outs, two on strikeouts, gave up a walk and a single. Why is that so telling? Well, this season, Soto has dominated lefty batters. They are hitting just .130 against Soto with a .443 OPS. Conversely, righties are hitting Soto. (.262; .740 OPS). The three guys he got out Saturday? All righties. The two guys who got on against him? Both lefties.