What might make Bryce Harper, Bryce Harper…Will batters strike back against defensive shifts?…And is Mercer the future at SS?


PNC PARK – If you really like Rock and Roll and you were around for the 1960s, you’d probably have loved to watch The Beatles during a sound check, or in a recording studio. Better yet, if you studied music, you’d have loved to watch The Beatles become The Beatles in their early years as they performed hour after hour at various clubs in Hamburg.


If you like baseball and wanted to see a similar once-in-a-generation talent early in his career, and you live in Pittsburgh, you probably should have come to PNC Park to watch the great Bryce Harper this weekend. (Yes, at 20, he’s already great). If you bought a ticket for Sunday’s game – Harper was thrown out after his first at bat for arguing a call – Bryce sends his apologizes.


This weekend was my first chance to see Harper up close. This is what struck me….


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(When I grow up, I want to be Bryce Harper).


It wasn’t Harper’s BP show that was particularly interesting though it was most impressive. It was fun to see him go Ragnar Lothbrok on a ball that cleared the right-center field seat just right of the batter’s eye. I assume the ball landed in the Allegheny and is en route to the Gulf as you read this.  That was fun to watch but we know he can do that.


It wasn’t the innate physical tools, the bat-speed, the balance, the lean but muscular 6-foot-3, frame that was particularly noteworthy, as everyone already knows Harper possesses these gifts.


It was what Harper did when few people were watching that was interesting.


I spent most of the pregame and postgame Saturday and Sunday in the Nationals clubhouse. Harper wasn’t joking around with teammates, he wasn’t being goofy, which most of us would be doing at 20. Harper was  focused on his craft.


Yes, it is a small sample size but in my two days of observation he watched the most video of any Nationals (or Pirates) player that I’ve seen. After games he watched his at bats. Before games he was studying that day’s starting pitcher. He seemed like a 35-year-old, veteran player looking for any morsel  to help him stay in the game.


“I do (watch a lot of video) but I don’t,” Harper told me. “I just try to see what (the pitcher’s) rotation is, what he’s going to throw. His curveball, is it loopy? Or is he going to throw a slider. Wandy (Rodriguez) he has a big curveball and he has a slider also, and he has fastball. I just try to watch everything I feel in my video (that’s relevant). I just want to see my hits. I don’t want to see any of my strikeouts.”


I didn’t see much interaction with teammates (or reporters). I saw a baseball focus. Maybe this is what is behind his ability to make adjustments on the fly at Age 20.


I don’t know if that’s always what Harper is like. But I do know most great athletes – or people great at anything – seem to have a rare ability to focus, and I know that wasn’t one of the things that was atop his scouting report.



(Harper shares these things with Viking warlord Ragnar Lothbrok: hair, aggressive nature, and focus on craft whether it be pillaging or hitting)


Part of what makes Bryce Harper, Bryce Harper is God-give batspeed, strength and balance. You can’t teach that. And only one in a 100 million are born with it.


But I think what also might make Harper, Harper are rare baseball intangibles. It’s never all about the gifts.


In that sense he’s a lot like the guy he’s tied for ninth with for most home runs all time through an Age 20 season. Ted Williams (31).


I think intangibles are often mistakenly defined as simply indicative of being good guy or good clubhouse presence. A scout recently told me those traits are over-rated, what teams really want in intangibles are focus and drive. Had more teams been interested in this perhaps Buster Posey wouldn’t have slipped to fifth overall in the 2008 draft. These sorts intangibles might be undervalued.


And had more people been focused on Harper’s focus maybe his first 162 Major League games wouldn’t have been so shocking.




The fastest growing trend in baseball, as I wrote about in today’s Trib, is the increasing use of shifts in the game.


Defensive shifts are not new. They’ve been employed sporadically since at least the 1920s. But the use of shifts has tripled in frequency since 2010. Just three years ago teams were shifting 0.8 times per game, last year it jumped to 1.9 shifts per game, and this season teams are shifting 2.4 times per game.


Why? The information age now allows clubs to track every batted ball in the game. And people are paying more attention to these advanced spray charts.


Is it working? Yes.


BABIP, batting average, and runs per game have all steadily decreased since 2006 and it must be due to something other than PEDs, which have been tested for since 2003. Smarter defense has to be part of the reason for the offensive decline.


Pull-heavy batters like Pedro Alvarez have their average decreased by 50 points on grounders and line drives when hitting into a shift. So why aren’t they going the other way?


Part of it is, as Alvarez says, is that batters don’t want defenses to dictate their approach. Part of it is sluggers are paid to hit home runs. The other part is it isn’t easy to go the other way, even when the field there is sparsely defended.


Said the Nats’ Ian Desmond: “It’s not like the pitcher isn’t talking to the defense. They are shifting you according to where they think you are going to hit the ball, and they are going to pitch you accordingly. If it were that easy to flip the ball over there and beat the shift then a lot more guys would do it.”




I know some of you had emailed me over the last few weeks asking about Jordy Mercer, and why he wasn’t up with the Pirates, as he was hitting a robust .333 at Triple-A. Well, Mercer got his call Friday and homered in his first game.


I still think Clint Barmes is the clear No. 1 option in the short term at shortstop . While he’s not a dynamic offensive player he does get good reviews for his defense, which is most important at the game’s most critical defensive position.


The long term? That’s a different question. Barmes is not under contract for next year, and with him being in his late 30s, it’s understandable if the Pirates look elsewhere.


Alen Hanson is the team’s top middle infield prospect but he’s still in A ball, and it’s unclear if he can stick at SS.\


So Mercer, and Chase d’Arnaud, the Pirates two best options at shortstop for next year.


“He’s an option at shortstop next year,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said before Sunday’s game.


Maybe he’s a default option, but if Mercer can win over some more hearts and minds he can be an option. It’s an interesting subplot to follow moving forward.


– TS

Twitter: @Sawchik_Trib