Bryce Harper has provided two stirring moments in the 2021 season. He didn’t swing a bat either time.
On April 7, his bunt single in the fifth inning helped the Phillies beat the Mets, and looked really cool.
On Wednesday night, his candor and accountability set an example for the rest of the team for the rest of the season:
“I think one guy right now [is] really doing his job: J.T. Everybody else around him, not doing so much.”
You heard right.
That was the $330 million man calling every single hitter out.
The Phillies had just lost a third straight game to the Mets, in which they’d scored four total runs. Catcher J.T. Realmuto wasn’t the problem. His OPS was .888, 90 points higher than his closest teammates’, Harper and Rhys Hoskins. Realmuto’s .324 batting average led Didi Gregorius’ by 14 points.
Harper kept spitting cold, hard truths.
“We need to play hard,” Harper said.
They’re not playing hard. At least, not hard enough. They’re not focusing. They’re not grinding.
“We need to understand that every run counts. Every out counts as well. You only get 27 of them,” Harper said.
Also: No excuses, fellas. You might be tired, and you might be distracted, but you’re still getting paid.
“We have to do our job every single day, no matter how we’re feeling at the plate,” Harper said. “No matter how we’re feeling on the field. No matter how we’re feeling off the field.”
Present company included? Indeed.
“On a personal level,” he said, “I need to be better.”
More contact, in general, would be better. The Phillies’ 121 strikeouts ranked fifth-most in the Major Leagues after they whiffed 14 times in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss. Harper struck out three times for the first time this season.
“Punching out that many times in a game, as a team — as an individual — I can’t do that,” Harper said. “I need to have better at-bats. I need to stop chasing stuff out of the zone. I need to let [pitchers] come in to me.”
That’s sound advice for the other hitters, too. At least they got no worse Thursday. The last game of their four-game series at the Mets was postponed due to rain. That meant the Phillies missed Jacob deGrom, who has ranked in the top five in strikeouts each of the past four seasons.
It would have been like throwing raw steak to a lion. Or, maybe they all could’ve tried bunting.
Lay it down
According to fangraphs.com, Harper bunts with exceptional success: he’s hitting (bunting?) .531 in his career, and he’s 7-for-11 as a Phillie. He constantly faces shifts, which usually is the impetus for him bunting, so he usually bunts toward the shortstop or third base. Last season he explained why he bunts so often: If the opposition is willing to give a player with his speed first base for free, he’s confident that his teammates will drive him in.
Selflessness. What a concept.
However, on April 7, with a runner on second base and no outs, Harper didn’t bunt to the left side. Instead, he pushed his bunt up the first-base line.
In the worst case, as long as the bunt was fair and on the ground, the Phillies would have a runner on third and one out. It became the best case. Harper bunted beautifully. There was no play to be made. The fielders were playing deep. David Peterson, the pitcher, is left-handed, and so he follows through toward third base.
Harper even slid headfirst into the bag, a cherry on top of a delightful play. This unusual move also was an acceptable strategy, considering the situation. Sliding helps the runner avoid a tag if the converging infielders cannot cover the bag, and sliding also diminishes the likelihood of collisions.
Still, even though Realmuto followed with a game-clinching, three-run home run, there’s little ammunition to argue for a bunt in the spot. Harper bats third, where RBIs roost. He’s taking home $26 million this year to push Rhys Hoskins from second to home, not from second to third.
Besides, earlier in the game, Harper crushed a double off Peterson. It left his bat at more than 116 mph, which, for those not analytically inclined, is hard and fast. The bunt? Maybe 16 mph.
The matchup wasn’t bad, either. Yes, it was lefty vs. lefty, but the double in his first at-bat made Harper 3-for-5 with one strikeout in his career against Peterson. That strikeout had come in his second at-bat, and on three pitches, but still, Harper probably should have tried to drive in the run.
So what. Bryce Harper’s a ballplayer, not a robot.
A ballplayer, and a leader.