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Should struggling Harper actually move up in lineup?

Aug 6, 2014, 11:00 AM EST


Bryce Harper is searching at the plate, this much is obvious. Every time it appears the young slugger is headed on the right track, he falls back into a mini-slump and starts flailing at pitches he has little chance of hitting with authority.

Harper now has stepped to the plate 205 times this season, a reasonable sample, and has hit .249 with only 12 extra-base hits, 14 RBI and a .692 OPS that ranks 181st out of 286 major-league hitters with at least that many plate appearances.

He’s 3 for his last 24 — all three hits were singles — and he has stranded 10 men on base in that time, including three during last night’s 6-1 loss to the Mets. After sending a flyball to the warning track in the sixth inning, he slammed his helmet to the ground. After striking out in the ninth, a smattering of boos could be heard around Nationals Park.

Matt Williams understands Harper’s frustration.

“I’m OK with it,” the manager said. “We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in that position where it looks like somebody’s throwing an aspirin up there. But it can turn quickly, too. And some days, it just looks like a beach ball as well. I’m fine with him. He’s working hard. He works hard every day … one of the first guys here to work. And he’s working through it. He’s grinding up there.”

What, though, beyond nonstop work can get Harper going again? Here’s a crazy thought: Move him up in the lineup.

Harper has hit sixth most of this season. Williams took heat early on for not giving his talent-laden, 21-year-old more chances to bat per game, but right now Harper hasn’t particularly shown he deserves more at-bats.

But here’s the problem: It’s not working right now, and Harper seems to realize it. He’s frustrated. He’s dejected. He’s playing and acting the exact opposite of the 19-year-old who captivated us all in 2012 and went on to win NL Rookie of the Year.

Video work and long sessions in the batting cage with Rick Schu may help, but perhaps what Harper needs right now more than advice on swing mechanics is a confidence boost.

So many things have happened this season — really, going back to last season — to threaten Harper’s confidence. He has been hurt. He was benched by his new manager for not running out a grounder. He was dropped in the lineup. He not-so-subtly suggested he would prefer to play center field but has been kept in left field throughout.

This used to be the most-confident ballplayer in the world, one who took D.C. and the major leagues by storm as a teenager with the swagger of a guy who knew he was better than anybody else on the field and played like it.

That Harper hasn’t existed for awhile. We certainly haven’t seen him this season. Perhaps it’s all a reflection of his injuries, the fact he probably hasn’t been 100 percent healthy since April 2013.

But short of physical healing, perhaps there is some mental healing for Harper that can help him rediscover himself. And perhaps a show of faith in him from his manager is a path to get him there.

It’s not like the middle of the Nationals’ lineup as currently constructed is getting the job done. Jayson Werth won NL Player of the Month honors for July, but Adam LaRoche has hit .190 since July 1, Ian Desmond is 7 for his last 47 with one extra-base hit and Ryan Zimmerman isn’t coming back anytime soon.

Has Harper done anything to deserve getting bumped up in the lineup? No. But he remains the most-gifted hitter on the roster, the one with potential to be the most-productive hitter in the league.

What does Williams have to lose by showing a little faith in a struggling young star?

  1. natsguy - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    I swear to God, if Gio “tips his cap” one more time in an interview I will personally go to DC from Oregon and puke his hat all over his feet. Stop tipping and grinding, just say I didn’t pitch very well tonight/today and leave it at that. Geez, I can live with losing games and admitting some bad play. But stop with the worn out cliches. Stop the cap tipping already.

    • bowdenball - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      Gotta tip my cap to you here. Some people might think it’s silly to complain about athletes using cliches in postgame interviews, but you just keep grinding.

      • donniebenth - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:33 PM

        Try to put the barrel of the bat on the ball

      • npb99 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:59 PM

        +1 LOL!

    • stoatva - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:19 AM

      At least he didn’t blame LaRoche for failing to snag the first inning triple, or Cabrera and Werth for letting that pop drop. Sometimes the best you can do is get through a presser without making news.

      • natsbro - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:20 AM

        Very true..our manager is still learning that..ha!

    • Doc - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:26 PM

      Personally, I think that we should tip our caps to players that tip their caps. LOL

  2. stoatva - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:16 AM

    But short of physical healing, perhaps there is some mental healing for Harper that can help him rediscover himself.

    [ Queues up Marvin Gaye ]

    • donniebenth - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:30 PM

      Lol. Great post. Needed some comic relief

  3. Ghost of Steve M. - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    Gio’s box score didn’t show it but he pitched well enough to win and his defense didn’t make plays. He didn’t help himself with the leadoff walk to Chris Young in the 7th which blew the game open. That was the only thing that Gio really did stupid. Make him earn his way on.

    • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:37 PM


  4. lphboston - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    I am on board with the writer’s suggestion.
    I would move Harper to No. 3 or 4, if only against righties.
    He badly needs a confidence boost. ALR won’t be around come Nov. 1, and this is the guy who will be hitting in the middle of the lineup — hopefully for the next decade. Batting him 6th just strands him when he does get on base, and that frustrates him even more.

    • tcostant - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:01 PM

      Give him a cookie too! Come on, bat him where his play say he should bat, that is 8th once Ramos gets back.

  5. Mrsb loves the Nats - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    My batting order would be




    Desi needs to get out of the 5 spot yesterday

    • therealjohnc - Aug 6, 2014 at 4:58 PM

      You’re going to drop Rendon, one of the best hitters on the team, to the #6 spot? Yeah, no.

  6. David Proctor - Aug 6, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    Bryce Harper has just over 100 ABs since coming off the DL. He’s hitting around .200. Ryan Zimmerman’s first 100 ABs? .190. Yet nobody was calling to send down the FoF. Nor should they have been.

    Harper’s searching for it, but you have to give him time to find it. He’s too talented not to.

    As for this post, I agree he needs a confidence boost, but I’m not sure where you move him up to. Desi needs out of the 5 hole immediately.

    • sunshinebobby - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:15 PM

      No, David, nobody here called from Zim to be sent down. Some of the nannies here just wanted to trade his butt to the American League. As if anybody is going to pick up that $100 MM contract.

  7. Hiram Hover - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:03 PM

    The problem with this – besides the assumption that Bryce is a delicate psychological flower who needs special handling – is that moving him up means moving someone else down and potentially throwing the line up out of whack.

    Move him up to #5? Ok, but then you’ve bunched together 2 lefties. And is merely moving up one enough Miracle Gro for his wounded soul?

    Move him up to #4, and you get some more Miracle Gro, but still bunch two lefties.

    Move him up to #3, and you’re bumping down Werth.

    Move him up to #2, and you’re breaking up the Spandon duo that has worked so well.

    • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:14 PM

      I would be down with straight up flipping Harper and LaRoche for a game or two…they’re basically interchangeable at the plate anyway these days, aside maybe from Adam taking walks more readily.

      • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:17 PM

        PS – I would would also flip Ramos and Desi, and then Desi and Cabrera:

        You risk the black hole at the bottom of the order, unless Cabrera gets on track.

    • bowdenball - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:21 PM

      I don’t think moving Werth back is really a problem. Cleanup is hardly a demotion.


      • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:23 PM

        I agree its not a demotion, but there’s a balance there that I think you don’t risk at this time.

      • bowdenball - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:27 PM

        How so? I don’t think there’s some magical synergy in having Werth hit directly behind Rendon. And even if there is, I’m happy to trade it for the benefits of moving and LaRoche Desmond down a spot given their struggles and moving Harper into a position where he feels he doesn’t need to crush the ball to contribute. At six he probably feels he has to do it all himself, especially when Ramos is out. At 3 he can return to what he does best- get on base- and leave it to the guys behind him to drive in runs.

      • Hiram Hover - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:34 PM

        Agree that that is probably the least bad of the plans to move Bryce up. I remain skeptical that he ought to be moved up, period.

        PS – bowdenball and Eric – thanks for your feedback yesterday about when to show up to get the gnome. Got there with the family and dropped them off around 5:45 and they had no trouble. Parked the car and hiked back. Entered at 6:10 and they were down to the last ones on the table.

      • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:36 PM

        I suppose you can call it “magical synergy.” I think it’s pretty grounded and observable, myself.

        I think Werth operates like a cork in that he doesn’t seem to need protection to succeed (although obviously he was even more successful when LaRoche was on fire). This makes the top of the order something of a self-contained unit, and until Span > Rendon show signs of slowing down, I don’t think you uncork the bottle.

        JMO, though.

      • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:40 PM

        PS – you’re welcome, HH. Glad you got yours. A buddy of mine was late, and his son was crushed that they didn’t get one. Fortunately, my wife and I bought some Werth gear in the store and had an extra. His face was priceless when I handed it to him 😉

      • zmunchkin - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:20 PM

        And the Gnomes are going for upwards of $50 on eBay. Incredible that folks would pay that much.

  8. langleyclub - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:14 PM

    So, the logic is move Harper up in the order because he is performing poorly?

    By that logic, should the Nats also move Desmond to the 3 hole and drop Span and Rendon to the bottom of the line-up?

    Why not bat a top three of Espinosa-Harper-Desmond?

    Harper has been enough of a drag on the lineup as it is. Why move him up to a spot that would simply increase the impact of his struggles on the team? The fact is if Bryce Harper had not been hyped to this degree (based upon reputation rather than performance); the discussion would be whether Harper needs to be sent to AAA, which is the more logical move. Instead, things have become so backward, that reasonable people have twisted their thinking to the point that Harper should be moved up in the lineup even though he is completely loss and mediocre MLB pitcher toy with him.

    No. Harper should not be moved up in the lineup, and it is move ridiculous to consider displacing the top two hitters (Span/Rendon) who have generated the Nats only offense over the past week+.

    • bowdenball - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:19 PM

      This is absurd. No team would ever consider sending a young player with a career OPS of .811 over 1300 plate appearances to AAA because he’s in a slump. As others have pointed out this has nothing to do with Harper’s status since Zimmerman struggled even worse in his initial weeks back from the hand injury and nobody called for the team to bench him.

      A statement like that immediately kills your credibility.

    • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:22 PM

      Harper absolutely lived up to his billing through April 2013. It’s in there somewhere. Still, I think you make a fair argument, and I think it’s fair to say keeping Harper in the middle third of the order despite his struggles is confidence in its own right. That said, I think LaRoche’s and Desi’s struggles, mean you have some leeway here. It’s not like moving Harper to the 4 or 5 hole risks offsetting someone who is a major producer at the moment.

      I would expand the “untouchable” part of the line up (Span and Rendon) to include Werth. I don’t think you break up that band for anything at this time.

    • David Proctor - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:24 PM

      “the discussion would be whether Harper needs to be sent to AAA, which is the more logical move.”

      This is why you’re not a GM. You don’t immediately demote every struggling player.

      • langleyclub - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:36 PM

        Sorry, did not realize that an MLB GM was posting under the handle of David Proctor.

        Mark posted has thoughts to initiate a discussion, which is great. The counterpoint to moving him up in the lineup (which I do not see happening) is either benching him or sending him down (which I also do not see happening).

        Harper has not just struggled for a week or two. He has 205 plate appearances on the season with 3 home runs and 14 RBI while batting in the middle of the lineup. That is awful. He is lost at at the plate. If Tyler Moore had those stats he would be sent to AAA… Wait a minute… He already was.

        Contending teams cannot afford to continue to play a corner OF that has no pop and strikes out 30% of the time. There are 50 games left. Would love to see him bust out, but batting him 2-3-4 fails to make sense.

      • bowdenball - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:44 PM

        Bryce Harper has played 27 games since returning from a long DL stint due to hand injury. Here are his numbers in those games: .2.12/.284/.337.

        Oh, wait, sorry.! Those were Ryan Zimmerman’s numbers in his first 27 games since returning from a long DL stint due to hand injury. My mistake! Harper’s numbers are actually quite a bit better than that, her’s got a .311 OBP since his return.

        If you’re curious, Zimmerman went on to hit .362/.418/.569 after that start before tearing his hamstring. But sure, demote the ultratalented guy with two major league seasons of good to great hitting numbers in the middle of a playoff chase because he’s been slow to get his swing back. Sounds like a great move.

      • zmunchkin - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:23 PM

        Don’t you realize that facts and data have no place in these discussions?

      • scmargenau - Aug 6, 2014 at 4:33 PM

        Just curious. What are harps numbers with Risp over those 1700 at bats. And for this year alone?

    • chaz11963 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:35 PM

      The last thing you would ever want to do at this point is send Harper to AAA. I think their is a strong narrative that Harper’s performance is, at least partially, linked to how he has been treated this year by Matt Williams. Harper is a main piece of this team, and will be in the future as well. Treat him like it. I’d like to see some of the swagger and confidence from Harper that he exhibited in 2012 and 2013 when he was such a catalyst, and at times carried the Nats. Sending him down to AAA will only continue to contribute to his lack of confidence and poor performance.

      • tcostant - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:05 PM

        I don’t agree with this at all. Matt Williams at the start of his playing days was a hot prospect and fail a could of times and when to the minors and came back strong. Many other have too. O have no issue if the Nationals want to send Harper down for 2 or 3 weeks to work on his swing in less pressure situations. No issue at with it.

  9. philipd763 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:36 PM

    Harper is lost at the plate. Every time he comes up to bat he’s trying a different stance. Maybe he needs to sit for awhile or spend some time in Syracuse or Harrisburg. What does Rick Schu have to say about this?? Isn’t he the hitting coach?

    • Doc - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:32 PM

      There is absolutely nothing that a hitting coach can do at this point in Harper’s struggles. Harper knows what he has to work on, and in time that will happen.

  10. sjm308 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    Along with this article – Kilgore in the Post went a little further with Williams comments on Harper. Apparently, Harper is one of the first ones at the park every day. Works hard, and has kept his head up. All things I loved reading.

    My lineup has Harper 3rd and Werth 4th. Best lineup I remember was Werth first and Harper 2nd but we know that is not going to happen and I love what Span and Rendon are doing right now.

    Bottom line is, Harper might get a days rest every now and then but he will NOT be sent down.

    Go Nats!!

    • 6ID20 - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:37 PM

      Substitute Espinosa 2013 for Harper 2014 in that article and you have the exact same narrative. Promising young player gets hurt, tries to play through it and messes up his swing. All of Williams’s comments about what Harper is doing now to get right are the same as what was said about Danny during his death spiral last year. They sent Espinosa down last year to get himself right, so why is it a bad idea to do the same with Harper now? Saying “because it didn’t work for Espinosa” is not a good answer. If Harper is such a special player, he should be able to make the adjustment. He’s not doing it in the majors, though, is he? The real question here is does Rizzo have the cojones to do the right thing and send Harper down til the Sept 1 call ups?

  11. hitmeimopen - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    All this soul-searching illuminates the overriding issue of the Nats being a fragile group. Emotionally fragile. Slumps last longer…second-guessing crops up…an injury (heaven forbid!) throws the whole club into a tailspin. These guys are the most non-scrappy collection I can think of. They say they’re ‘grinding’. I don’t see it. To me, grinding is when you bust your ass when you have a lead…the Nats seem to take a powder once they score a few runs early. This club actually resembles the Braves somewhat right now. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Marlins or Mets win the friggin’ East.

    • chaz11963 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:58 PM

      Fragile…?! This team has suffered arguably the worst bout of injuries to any MLB club this year. At the same time, the bench has under-performed. Yet, they are 3 games in front in the NL East, and just 2 weeks ago had the best record in the NL. Fragile? Non-scrappy? Really? What team are you watching?

      • hitmeimopen - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:38 PM

        They aren’t nervous, which is a plus, but they seem to put a premium on the fact that there’s always a tomorrow. Tell me you don’t get the feeling that they come off lackadaisical in crucial innings and I would ask, “What games are you watching?”

      • therealjohnc - Aug 6, 2014 at 5:02 PM

        The Nats have pretty amply demonstrated that they are NOT “mentally fragile.”

        Their fans, OTOH … 😉

  12. langleyclub - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:46 PM

    BTW, Williams has batted Harper in the #2 hole 11 times this year:

    41 ABs 7 H 1 Extra base hit 0 HRs .171 AVG .195 SLG .244 OBP .440 OPS

    So, you want to try this again?

    Not sure how anyone can try to shift responsibility for Harper’s lack of performance on anyone, but Bryce. If he showed a glimmer of producing, he would bat 3rd or 4th, but that is not on option until he becomes a threat. Even a minor threat.

  13. breakbad1 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:47 PM

    Mark–re your statement that Harper “remains the most-gifted hitter on the roster.”

    I’m not so sure.

    As a hitter, he brings three components:

    1. His enormous physical gifts.
    2. His extremely imbalanced, ultra-intense versus ultra-sulk personality, compounded by total lack of patience.
    3. His tendency to get injured.

    I’m not going to do match-ups of the other guys on the roster versus Harper, but I will say that hundreds of serious men across MLB–scouts, coaches, pitchers and catchers–are studying him for weaknesses, and they are succeeding.

    If he doesn’t get some kind of handle on #2 and 3 above, “most gifted” will not be used to describe him in the future.

    • bowdenball - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:50 PM

      Lack of patience? He has the second-highest walk rate on the team behind Adam LaRoche.

      • scmargenau - Aug 6, 2014 at 4:39 PM

        Fanboy. Just stop defending him. Ugh.

      • therealjohnc - Aug 6, 2014 at 5:03 PM

        Oh, you and your “facts” and “statistics.” You can’t fight the narrative!

  14. Sam - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:48 PM

    I stopped reading after 205 plate appearances was declared a “reasonable sample.” Absolutely not. 205 plate appearances is reasonable for predicting K% and BB% and that’s about it.

  15. dcsportsfan2277 - Aug 6, 2014 at 12:54 PM

    At the moment here would be my line-up:


    Adjust the middle as to who is hitting well and pray that Ryan gets well soon. Insert Souza 2-3 times a week if he rakes which allows Werth to rest and Harper to sit against tough lefties.

    • numbskull111 - Aug 6, 2014 at 3:13 PM

      I actually like that lineup. LaRoche gives Harper some protection and LaRoche has shown he has a good enough eye to layoff the junk out of the zone and draw walks if need be.

      Desi will continue to swing for Half St. no matter what the count, the situation, or where he is in the order and may get lucky every now and then to actually hit a ball hard somewhere.

      At the very least, MW has to get Ramos out of the 8 hole. He is hitting well there in front of the pitcher….so you know he isn’t getting much to hit, and he is still doing well. Get him up in the middle where he will get a few more ABs and some better pitches to hit.

  16. breakbad1 - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:11 PM

    Bowden–I totally accept your point.

    What I meant was not patience at the plate. I meant patience (or impatience) as an aspect of one’s patience with oneself.

    All these behaviors we see–the bleeding forehead from smashing a bat against a wall and having it ricochet back at him, the constant changing of stances and gloves between and even during at bats, the exaggerated smashing of the helmet last night after his flyout to left–all these things indicate extreme impatience with himself.

    I believe this kind of patience can be learned. If Harper would study Rendon, LaRoche, Span, Werth, Ramos, and Ryan Zimmerman, he could learn it.

    • bowdenball - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:16 PM

      You can call it impatience or or whatever, and he’s obviously easily frustrated. He’s an intense guy. But it worked for him in 2012 and April 2013. And it didn’t prevent him from pulling out of a prolonged slump in the summer of 2012. So I tend to think his problems are mostly physical at this point.

      As I pointed out earlier, Zimmerman had similarly terrible numbers in his first month of games after returning from a similar injury, and right about at this point he went on a tear that unfortunately ended with the hamstring injury. Because of that and the many other examples of players in this lineup surviving slumps and emerging better than ever, I say we give him at least a couple more weeks before deciding there’s really a problem here beyond injury recovery issues.

      • scmargenau - Aug 6, 2014 at 4:44 PM

        Dude. Zim is a lifetime just under 300 hitter. Bryce has a lot to prove to earn the patience Zim deserves.

    • chaz11963 - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:25 PM

      I don’t think it’s necessary to have Harper learn patience from anyone. His personality is different. As I mentioned above, let’s see some of the swagger and confidence from Harper that he exhibited in 2012 and 2013 when he was such a catalyst, and at times carried the Nats.

  17. tcostant - Aug 6, 2014 at 1:59 PM

    Bat him 8th once Ramos gets back…

  18. sunshinebobby - Aug 6, 2014 at 2:02 PM

    A month ago, it was trade Zim to the American League.
    This week it’s send Harper to Syracuse.
    What’s the ninny move next week? Send Fister back to Detroit?

    We have a three-game lead with eight weeks to go. Relax, people, try the decaf and enjoy this ride.


    • Eric - Aug 6, 2014 at 3:25 PM

      I hope you didn’t just will up a clunker for Fister tonight, sunshinebobby!

    • scmargenau - Aug 6, 2014 at 4:46 PM

      The only reason anyone suggested moving zlm was his noodle arm. It’s just painful to watch. He will cost us games in LF or 3rd. Fact. But his bat is too good. I hope he goes to first next year.

  19. Section 222 - Aug 6, 2014 at 3:22 PM

    Great debate here. Sorry I’m too late to engage. Just wanted t put in for the record the brief exchange in last night’s Instant Analysis on this topic. I love it when Mark brings a good conversation starter to the fore:

    Nats fool – Aug 5, 2014 at 11:22 PM
    What they need to do is move him up in the lineup like they should have done at the beginning of the season. Let him see more pitches where they don’t have 7,8, and 9 waiting. MW has gotten into his head requiring him to earn it “old school.” There is a bad vibe, like the manager is about to lose the team. Rizzo will have some tough decisions in the offseason.

    stoatva – Aug 5, 2014 at 11:27 PM
    I tend to agree with this.

    Section 222 – Aug 6, 2014 at 12:49 AM
    +1 Someone asked me tonight what I think about MW? I said “jury’s still out, but I’m concerned about how he’s handled Bryce.” He doesn’t seem to have any answers other than make him a second tier player batting 6th.

    • scmargenau - Aug 6, 2014 at 4:48 PM

      He’s had protection with Ramos. Didn’t help. A move to top of order is coddling.

    • therealjohnc - Aug 6, 2014 at 5:08 PM

      Whenever someone starts mind reading “MW has gotten into his head … ” or telling us what it’s like in a clubhouse that he or she never goes in to “[t]here is a bad vibe, like a manager is about to lose the team”

      That’s a solid indicator of a commenter who is projecting his or her own narrative onto the scene from the outside and then engaging in a massive dance of confirmation bias to reinforce it. Assign credibility at your own risk.

      The Braves rewarded a struggling player (B.J. Upton) by moving him to leadoff. It’s been an utter disaster for the player (who may be about to lose his job to the remains of Emilio Bonifacio) and for the team. Yeah, let’s not have the Nats emulate that model.

  20. breakbad1 - Aug 6, 2014 at 4:26 PM

    Chaz–good point but I believe his swagger and confidence have injured him badly, twice, and that if he doesn’t make changes, more injuries await.





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