This was to be the year of Trout and Harper, Harper and Trout, wonderkind rookies primed to change the face of baseball—and in late spring and early summer, it was.
It’s still the year of Mike Trout, of course. Bryce Harper, though: not so much. His high-water mark was a .307 batting average on June 12; three games later he went 0-for-7 against the Yankees, with five strikeouts, and has hit .210 over the 49 games since, with only three homers. Since the All-Star break, he’s batting .176.
Harper has been baseball’s most touted prospect since he was 16 years old, and now, for what may be the first time in his life, he’s scuffling in a significant way.
In the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Astros, he took a two-strike pitch, low and outside from Armando Galarraga—“catcher Carlos Corporan’s mitt nearly scraped the dirt,” reported the Washington Post—so certain it was a ball that he stepped back into the box. Plate ump Angel Hernandez called it strike three.
Harper got into Hernandez’s face, shouting and pointing, and had to be physically removed by first base coach Trent Jewett.
It was a reaction borne of frustration, likely as much about Harper’s own struggles as Hernandez’s strike zone. The ump didn’t come close to ejecting the rookie (“Let him have his say—nothing wrong with that,” Hernandez told a pool reporter after the game) but it’s possible that the display affected his outlook toward Harper’s ensuing at-bats.
Umpires vociferously reject the notion that they ever test rookies in creative ways—denying them close calls as a means of putting them into their place, letting them know from the get-go who holds the power on a baseball diamond—but their ranks have long been accused of doing exactly that.
Former catcher Randy Knorr tells a story about Wade Miller’s first major league start, with the Houston Astros in 1999. He was struggling against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and plate umpire Rich Rieker wasn’t giving him any close calls. Miller was 22 years old, and was becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to get a break from Rieker.
“[Miller] throws one pitch right down the middle and it’s called a ball,” said Knorr. “I throw the ball back out there and he’s looking in at the umpire. I say, ‘Hold on,’ and I call time out and run out to the mound. I said, ‘Wade, man, just get through today. If you get through today, you’ll be fine. Just don’t show up the umpire. He’s testing you. I’m trying to work him back there, so don’t be snapping the ball on him or anything like that.’ ”
Miller did as instructed, and though his day didn’t go well—he gave up seven runs in three innings and took the loss—when he walked past Rieker on his way off the field, the arbiter said, “Good job, Wade.”
In the sixth inning Wednesday, when Hernandez called a strike against Harper on another low, outside pitch—which would have been ball four from reliever Xavier Cedeno—it smacked of a similar type of rookie baiting. Harper had showed up the ump in the fourth by so publicly questioning his strike zone. This time the bases were loaded, and Harper had already started jogging to first; when he heard Hernandez’s strike call, he was sufficiently disbelieving as to take a few more steps.
Now the count was full, and Cedeno’s next pitch was again low and away. Again Harper watched it. Again it was called a strike. From the Post:
Harper cocked his bat with one hand, as if he was going to throw it, then restrained himself. He chucked his helmet and tossed his bat, and as he ripped his batting gloves off in the middle of the diamond he shook his head.
The calls were so questionable, and Harper so visibly upset, that Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche checked in with Hernandez after the inning, the obvious on his mind. “I said, ‘What’s going on? From where I’m at, those balls are down.’ ” he said. “[Hernandez] assured me that they were good pitches. He said he would never do that to Bryce, he loves him, he loves the way he plays and that there’s no kind of initiation there. He called it the way he would call it to anybody.”
La Roche, a 9-year vet, has seen this kind of thing before. Without saying as much, he made it obvious that he felt like he recognized exactly what was going on.
“I’ve been in that position,” he said after the game. “I’ve talked to Bryce a lot about it. I said, ‘You’ve got to keep your mouth shut, but at some point, if it gets really bad, you’ve got to stand up for yourself and not sit there and take it.’ ”
Harper is still trying to figure that one out. Speaking the following day about Hernandez’s expanded zone, he said, “When you have to chase a 2-1 fastball two inches off, it’s not fun.”
The Post cited FanGraphs.com stats showing that only 40 percent of the pitches Harper has seen since the All-Star break have been in the strike zone (27th lowest in the majors), and he’s swung and missed at fewer than 30 percent of those (and at 8.5 percent of his pitches overall). These are good numbers, not usually aligned with a guy who’s striking out more than 22 percent of the time.
An umpiring conspiracy to deliver some humility to the guy who wore gold cleats in the All-Star Game as a teenager? A longshot, at best. But the notion that individual umps view Harper just a bit differently than they do other players around the league is not so far-fetched, especially considering the media hype that followed him through the first half of the season. Knowing one’s place in the baseball hierarchy has always been of vital importance to many of those involved in the game, and umpires are no exception.
If such calls are indeed intentional, each is only a small factor in putting Harper in his place. Cumulatively, however, they’re having an effect. Whether or not they’re just, there’s little doubt that the lessons Harper is learning today will be of use later in his career.