When Bryce Harper, following last night's 8-0 trouncing at the hands of the Phillies, described himself as "all over the place right now," he might have been referring to the 0-for-11, five-strikeout skid in which he's currently mired. He might also have been thinking farther back, recognizing his struggles at the plate have been going on much longer than many may realize.
On June 12, Harper went 3-for-4 with a home run in Toronto, a game best remembered for the "clown question" that was asked of the rookie, setting off a worldwide sensation.
Harper has played in 41 games since then, starting all but one, and his offensive numbers are anything but spectacular: He's hitting .214 with two homers, 10 RBI, 42 strikeouts, a .283 on-base percentage and a .592 OPS that if extrapolated out over the full season would rank 148th out of 151 qualifying major-league hitters.
"I'm trying to find some mellowness in the plate and in the box," Harper said last night in his latest attempt to usher a funny-sounding phrase into the lexicon. "Just trying to work at it every day and try to take something good from every at-bat and take something good from every game."
Is Harper trying to force things, trying too hard to get himself going again?
"I don't think I'm trying to do too much at all," he said. "I'm trying to keep my strikeouts down and my walks up. That's the biggest thing. Trying to square some stuff up and try to have good ABs and try to battle."
Harper is doing a a reasonably good job battling at the plate. He's still seeing 3.8 pitches per plate appearance, which among Nationals regulars ranks only behind Adam LaRoche (4.1) and Ryan Zimmerman (3.9). And his 10.1 percent walk rate ranks below only LaRoche (11.1 percent).
But he does seem to be expanding his strike zone more these days, chasing breaking balls down and away from left-handers in particular. There was a point in June in which Harper was hitting a stunning .375 against lefties; he's now hitting .246.
In his defense, a lot has been asked of Harper, who at 19 has been one of the few mainstays in a lineup decimated by injuries.
We also have to remember that he is indeed 19, and still producing more than just about any teenager who has ever reached the big leagues. His current .756 OPS ranks sixth among all 19-year-olds with at least 350 plate appearances, better than Ty Cobb, Ken Griffey Jr., Robin Yount and Al Kaline.
But for perhaps the first time in his life, Harper is experiencing a prolonged slump. It's just one more important hurdle to cross for any rookie.
"You just try to battle as best you can and not worry about what's going on around you," he said. "As long as you go up there and try and stay within yourself and battle as best you can, good things will happen."