CLEARWATER, Fla. — John Middleton did not fly his private jet twice to Las Vegas because he had visions of Bryce Harper winning Gold Gloves. The Phillies did not host a news conference on top of their dugout last week with the belief they had spent $330 million on a defensive whiz. And the team’s store did not run out of a letter necessary to print Harper jerseys because the fan base was so excited with the new guy’s fielding.
The Phillies were well aware of Harper’s defensive challenges when they signed him to the richest contract in the history of team sports. Most defensive metrics graded him last season as one of the worst outfielders in baseball.
Harper played right field for the first four innings of Monday’s 8-2 Grapefruit League loss to Tampa Bay. He had just two balls hit to him as the Phillies received the first view of his defense. It was nice to see, manager Gabe Kapler said. Harper’s defense is a challenge the team is willing to live with because it was his bat — not his glove — that caused the Phillies to hope Harper would take their money.
Harper finished last season with the lowest ultimate zone rating among all outfielders, the lowest fielding runs above average, the second-lowest defensive WAR, the second-lowest defensive runs saved, and a fielding percentage that was slightly better than the league average. Kapler said he’s “not really looking into the past” and that Harper’s work has been great so far for the Phillies.
Last season was easily the worst defensive season of his career and he attributes his shortcomings to the 63 games he played in center field with the Washington Nationals. It would be great, Harper said Monday, if he can stay out of center. No need to worry, as Gabe Kapler later said Harper is the team’s right fielder.
“That takes a toll on myself, I guess, but it’s no excuse,” Harper said about playing center. “For me, it’s just getting better out there. My knees felt great. For me, it’s trying to get better. I know I was terrible last year in center field. But it’s trying to get better. That’s it. Plan and simple. At the end of the day you’ve got to get better — not making those overthrows and really making the right decisions. When you’re letting runs in or anything like that, it’s going to hurt your team. For me, it’s getting better out there. I keep saying it, but it’s true. I need to get better and do the little things right and be a little bit smarter out there and play the best right field that I can.”
Harper’s struggles maximized last season, but they were not limited to just 2018. He has had a positive defensive WAR in just two of his seven seasons and has the 13th-worst ultimate zone rating among all outfielders since 2015. Phillies outfielders, in that same four-year span, had the fourth-worst UZR among all teams. Nick Williams, who Harper replaced in right field, graded just as poorly last season as Harper.
Harper might not win a Gold Glove, but his defense will not be any worse than what the Phillies have grown accustomed to.
“For me, it’s going out there and getting my reps and doing stuff the right way,” Harper said. “It was something where I needed to go out there and work a little bit harder and do the things in the offseason I needed to get my jumps right, throw to the bags a little bit more, and just do the little things that make guys a little bit better each and every day.”
Harper, in a small sample size, was not a liability on Monday. He fielded a sacrifice fly and played a double off the wall. He played with an index card in his back pocket — the card the Phillies use to position their outfielders — and said he did the same last year in Washington. Kapler said Harper’s throw to third on the sacrifice fly was "one of the better throws we’ve seen all spring.” The Phillies will do it again on Wednesday night when Harper spends a few more innings in right field. It might be a challenge, but it’s one the Phillies are prepared to face.
“We’re confident that in his mid-20s, the athleticism, the first-step quickness, we saw the arm strength, the shoulders and the hips turning at the appropriate time, all of those things are in there,” Kapler said. “We believe that Bryce deserves a blank slate and the ability for us to see him through fresh eyes.”