Will 2018 be different?
Well, it’s hard to know. Injuries seem to be the biggest reason for his statistical drop-offs, though other issues could be at play too. Pitchers might adjust to him through the season, but that seems unlikely now that he is in his seventh season. Pitchers should already know how to attack him.
While his monthly numbers were slightly inconsistent in 2017 before his August injury, those stats are probably in line with expectations going forward. Harper was sitting on a season-long 1.034 OPS up until his knee injury in mid-August, with an OPS in the 1.200s in April and July, and an OPS in the .800s in May, June, and August. If he can remain healthy for 150 games, Harper will likely balance very good months with the occasional Ruth-ian tear thrown in. That is certainly good enough to be one of the best hitters in baseball.
But at his best, Harper is capable of posting stupendous numbers every single month of the season. During his 2015 campaign, Harper finished with an OPS above 1.000 in four of the six months. His lowest monthly number was a .909 OPS in August, which still would’ve ranked fourth in the NL that season. When healthy – I repeat, when healthy – Harper’s ho-hum is better than nearly anyone else at their peak.
So can he stay at his best? That’s up to Harper and the Nationals.
Harper is already showing more restraint when it comes to his wild ways on the field. On Sunday against the Mets, Harper hit a grounder to first base that forced New York pitcher Seth Lugo to cover the bag. Harper hustled out of the box, but once he saw Lugo in position and ready to receive the ball, he slowed down. Lugo eventually dropped the ball, fell to the dirt, and recovered to get the out, but Harper managed to stay away from what could have been a nasty collision.
(Sidebar: ESPN analyst Jessica Mendoza – who I generally like on-air – criticized Harper for not running through the bag because it was a tie game the 10th inning. If Harper had busted through first, ether he likely would’ve injured either himself or Lugo. Sorry if I excuse Harper for slowing down during a random April game, especially after he injured his knee running through first base last summer.)
On the Nationals end, the team must continue to manage his playing time. If a day off every two weeks is required to keep Harper fresh through October, so be it. As for his swing, new hitting coach Kevin Long is highly-regarded throughout baseball. Before the season, Long told the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell that he had a couple minor suggestions for Harper, but would largely stay away from the superstar. That’s all Harper needs – a tweak here and there as the season goes along. Just something to keep his swing in shape.
If Harper reverts to past form and becomes just a very good hitter for the rest of 2018, the Nationals will be fine. But we’ve seen how dominant he can be on a daily basis. If Harper can capture that for a full season again, the Nationals move from a playoff team to the clear pennant favorite.