MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals

MLB on Sling: Is Bryce Harper Back? That’s a Clown Question, Bro

Bryce Harper celebrated Easter by hitting a tiebreaking 2-run homer in the 3rd and then a come-from-behind 3-run walk-off homer to seal a 6-4 Nats win over the Phillies. Harper is now batting .333/.455/.644 with 12 runs scored, 4 homers, 13 RBI and 10 walks. If that slash line seems familiar, it’s because it mirrors almost perfectly the .330/.460/.649 from his MVP season two years ago.

Nobody has begun a Major League career with as much hype as Bryce Harper. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated by the age of 16, and was reviled by fans and players alike before even making his debut, thanks to incidents where his behavior was, well, typical of a teenager, like the time he blew a kiss to an opposing pitcher as he rounded the bases. But then he made it to The Show, and in in his eighth game in the bigs, he got plunked by Cole Hamels, who said afterward it was his way of saying “Welcome to the Big Leagues.” Rather than making a fuss, Harper delivered payback in the most amazing way: he took his base, hustled into the third on a single to left by Jayson Werth, and then stole home. He would go on to have the greatest season ever by a 19 year old, hitting 22 home runs, posting an .817 OPS and playing excellent D in center and right.

He was an even better hitter in 2013, but injuries limited him to just 118 games. In 2014 he was hurt even more, missing 62 games, and it started to affect him, as his OPS dipped to .768 and his defense suffered. Though Harper’s overall numbers were historically great for a player his age, the injuries coupled with the meteoric ascension of Mike Trout had started to make him look like a bust. But on May 6, 2014, it all came together for Harper, as he went 3-for-4 with 3 home runs in a 7-5 win over the Marlins. In his next game, two days later in Atlanta, he again went 3-for-4, this time with 2 homers and 5 RBI. It was the start of a 13-game stretch during which he hit 11 home runs and drew 12 walks over 58 plate appearances, for a 1.969 OPS. He would finished the season leading the league in runs, home runs, OBP, SLG, and, of course, OPS, and was a unanimous choice for MVP.

In April 2016, Harper was the same masher he’d been in 2015, on pace for 60 homers, 156 RBI and a 1.021 OPS, earning himself Player of the Month honors. But then the Nats headed to Chicago for a 4-game set with the Cubs, whose manager, Joe Maddon, decided he wanted no part of Harper. The Cubs pitched around Harper, walking him 13 times — four times intentionally — in 19 plate appearances. It was a bizarre strategy from a man as stat savvy as Maddon. In taking the bat out of Harper’s hands, he’d actually bumped his OPS to 1.039 for the four games, leading to Harper scoring 3 runs. But the Cubs won all four games, and Harper was never the same. Over his final 495 plate appearances, Harper was a mere mortal: 14 home runs and a .752 OPS. Part of it was bad luck, as his BABIP sank from .333 over the previous four seasons to .264 in 2016, but his home run rate fell as well, from 4.5% to 3.8%. Had baseball seen yet another young superstar fall back to Earth or would he get his mojo back?

It appears that reports of Harper having an injured shoulder and/or neck were true. Tom Verducci broke the story in August 2016, saying that Harper had been in pain for about two months, though the team denied it. Verducci followed up in September with claims that at one point Harper could barely throw a baseball 40 feet, at which point Nats GM Mike Rizzo admitted that Harper had had a stiff neck in August that caused him to miss five games, but that was it. But manager Dusty Baker admitted to a “shoulder thing.” This past February, Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, told MLB Network Radio “I think Harp had an issue that he played through with, that he battled with — that was certainly uncomfortable but still allowed him to play.”

Whatever it was exactly that was plaguing Harper, it’s pretty clearly behind him, because three weeks into the season he’s again playing like an MVP candidate.

Monday on ESPN

Pittsburgh Pirates (Ivan Nova 1-1, 2.25) vs St. Louis Cardinals (Lance Lynn 0-1, 5.23), 7pm ET

Wednesday on ESPN

Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer 0-2, 8.44) vs Minnesota Twins (Adalberto Mejia 0-1, 4.05), 8pm ET 

Saturday on FS1

Washington Nationals (Gio Gonzalez 1-0, 0.69) vs New York Mets (Matt Harvey 2-0, 2.92)

Sunday on ESPN

Washington Nationals (Mex Scherzer 1-1, 2.13) vs New York Mets (Zack Wheeler 1-1, 7.45)

Watch Major League Baseball on FS1 by subscribing to Sling Blue, and on ESPN by subscribing to Sling Orange.

All stats courtesy ESPN and Baseball Reference.

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