Matt Klentak was in his first months working in the Angels front office when the off-season’s marquee pickup fell into a wicked slump. Albert Pujols, who signed a $240-million deal before that 2012 season, had just a .510 OPS on May 14, after his first 35 games.
That memory -- a star player struggling in the first stages of a mega contract -- entered Klentak’s mind on Tuesday afternoon, when he discussed the struggles that Bryce Harper -- this off-season’s marquee pickup -- has faced in his month-and-a-half.
“I can’t help but think back to 2012,” Klentak said.
But then the Phillies general manager pointed out the differences in the slumps. Pujols was 32 years old and in his 12th season. His slow start was less of a slump than a precursor that his prime years were over. Harper is six years younger than Pujols was and in his eighth season. And Harper’s slump still comes with an OPS better than .800.
“This is not what we went through with Albert Pujols in 2012,” Klentak said.
It is that high OPS -- a sign that Harper is reaching base at a high rate and hitting for power despite a low average and high strikeout numbers -- that allows the Phillies to live through his slump. He leads the National League with 33 walks, but leads the majors with 56 strikeouts and is on pace to be the first Phillies batter to strike out 200 times in a season.
Harper struck out twice on Tuesday night, which gives him multiple strikeouts in 20 of the team’s first 41 games. He has struck out 18 times in the last 10 games, and his strikeout rate -- 30.9 percent of his plate appearances -- is 10 points higher than it was two years ago.
“I don’t love strikeouts offensively, but I think strikeouts, when they are balanced out with a high walk-rate, are OK,” Klentak said.
And that is what Harper has done. He walked in his first two plate appearances on Tuesday night and has walked nine times in his last 10 games. His walk rate -- 18.2 percent -- is on par with last season, and his on-base percentage -- .370 -- is below his career average but the fourth-highest on the team.
He not only leads the Phillies in walks but has the most doubles and the second-most homers. Harper is striking out at a record rate, and his slump has been rough, but he is hardly pulling down the Phillies.
“He had a stretch like this early last year, in fact,” Klentak said. “What great players do is work themselves out of it. This is specific to Bryce, but it’s also specific to a style of play. One of the things that I like about Bryce’s style of play is that even when he’s struggling offensively, he takes his walks. And it’s hard for players to really get into a prolonged slump when they have the patience that Bryce has. That’s why we can see right now that even though he may not be getting the hits that he’s hoping to get, he’s still reaching base at a good clip and positively impacting our club.”
Pujols went 3-for-4 on May 15, 2012, as he began to right his season. In the final 119 games, he posted a .964 OPS. Pujols “went back to being Albert Pujols, ” Klentak said, and “was an animal for the rest of that year.” Great players “typically find their groove.” And the Phillies have little doubt that their off-season pickup will find his groove.
“I look at the body of work in this guy’s career. He has power. He takes his walks. He hustles his butt off,” Klentak said. “Have we seen all of those things? Yes. Does he strike out? Yes. And he always has. We’re seeing all of the elements that Bryce Harper has had in his career, and I think we’ll continue to see a lot of those things. That’s just the style of player that he is.”