SAN FRANCISCO — Bryce Harper began the Phillies’ western road trip on Monday with an extended session in the batting cage. He emerged with a redesigned stance in which he held the bat straight up in the air rather than draping it over his left shoulder.
“I just felt like doing it,” he said, oozing nonchalance. “Did it in my last round in [batting practice] and it felt good, so I just went with it.”
It seemed to work, too. Harper notched two hits that night in Arizona, marking only his second multi-hit game in 2½ weeks. A hot streak appeared to be on the horizon.
By midweek, though, Harper had already ditched the new look. He reverted to the way he held the bat for most of the season’s first four months, clocked a home run Wednesday night against the Diamondbacks, and stuck with his usual stance for the beginning of the four-game series here in the Bay Area.
Want to know what Harper might try at the plate next? Tune in.
Even after his two-homer breakthrough Friday night against the Giants, Harper entered the weekend batting .252 through his first 425 at-bats with the Phillies. Among 147 players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title in either league, he was tied with the Mets’ Michael Conforto for 27th in on-base percentage (.371) but ranked only 71st in slugging (.478).
Forty-six players had more home runs than Harper (22); 65 players had more hits (107). He ranked sixth in the majors in walks (79) but was tied for the third-most strikeouts (134) with Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr., who nevertheless was batting 46 points higher.
It isn’t so much that Harper is having a bad year. It’s just that the Phillies need more from their $330 million superstar.
So he tweaks his stance and fiddles with his bat and tinkers with anything he can think of to light the spark that can carry the offense for a month or two and put the Phillies in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
And to hear Rick Schu tell it, all of the changes aren't a sign that Harper is lost at the plate. He has been doing it ever since he entered pro ball as the first overall pick in the 2010 draft.
“He’s always been that guy who changes it up,” said Schu, the Giants’ assistant hitting coach and Harper’s coach with the Washington Nationals from 2013 to 2017.
“He’ll go up with batting gloves sometimes and go up without batting gloves the next at-bat. He’ll grab [former teammate] Trea Turner’s bat out of the bat rack, and if he gets a hit, he’ll keep using it. Spread out [his stance]. Stand up. He’s a big ‘feel’ guy. He’ll try something and be like, ‘Oooh, man, that feels really good,’ and then he rolls with it for a while until he starts feeling a little funky again. That’s just how he is.”
Schu grew up near Sacramento but was born in Philadelphia. As a player, he came up with the Phillies and made his big-league debut for them in 1984. Tapped to replace Mike Schmidt at third base in 1985, he spent four seasons with the club as mostly a utility infielder before getting traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 1988.
As much as anybody, then, Schu understands why many Phillies fans feel underwhelmed by Harper’s production. He knows all about the pressure of expectations in a city that demands winning.
But if there's anyone who believes in Harper's ability to carry a team, it's Schu. He has seen him do it, not only in Harper's MVP season of 2015 but also when he slugged .595 in 111 games to lead the Nationals to a division title in 2017.
Harper was 18 years old and in A-ball in Hagerstown, Md., when Schu began working with him. And if you think Harper has a big, often violent swing now, you should have seen him back then.
“He’s always been a max-effort guy with a big arm bar, a big stride, but there was a lot more head movement, just a lot more stuff going on,” Schu said. “He’s really calmed himself down a lot. You get to your late 20s, even your early 30s, that’s when you blossom as a hitter. He’s in such great shape. He’s going to play for a long time. I only see him getting better. I really do.”
That’s partially why the Giants made a late push in spring training to sign Harper, even making him a 12-year, $310 million offer that would have been a record for a free agent even if the Phillies hadn’t beaten it. But even before the Giants demonstrated such a high level of interest, Schu tried to be as persuasive as a college football recruiter.
"Man, I texted him all the time and he never hit me back," Schu said. "I was bummed. I was trying to get him here, big-time. You see how one guy makes a difference in a lineup. You get that one guy who's a presence. A guy like Bryce can really make everybody that much better."
And for those who expected Harper to be better with the Phillies?
Talk to Schu at the end of the season.
"We've still got a lot of baseball left," he said. "It's always weird going to a different team, different atmosphere, different city. There's a process there. You see a lot of guys really struggle in that first year. I think by the end of the year you're going to go, 'Hey, that's a heck of a year.'
“When it’s all said and done, his numbers are going to be there. Even if they stay where they’re at, he’s still a big presence in that lineup. Trust me. Doing what he’s doing, Bryce is going to find a way.”