CLEARWATER, Fla. — Bryce Harper knows his defense last season wasn't good enough. The advanced defensive metrics are flawed and sometimes inaccurate, but practically all of them showed that Harper in 2018 was a worse outfielder than he had been in his previous six major-league seasons.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Harper was worth minus-26 defensive runs last season. The previous three seasons, he was worth plus-26 defensive runs saved. Clearly, something was amiss in 2018.
There were several factors. Harper suffered a knee injury toward the end of the 2017 season that could have played a role. The biggest factor, to him, was the number of innings he played in center field for the Nationals. It's just not his ideal spot.
"I know I was terrible last year in center field. I feel like if I can stay out of center field, that'd be great," Harper said after his second spring training game as a Phillie. "Wherever they need me to play, I'll play, whether it's center or left. But for me, leg-wise, keeping my legs and body fresh, right field is hopefully gonna be the spot.
"Just trying to know every single ballpark I play in, know right field the best I can and make the right throws I need to. There are times when I'll overthrow a guy or throw the ball to home plate instead of third base, so I can definitely get better at that. Just trying to improve each day, get my work in, really understand the report cards that we have and move my centerfielder. I've played with some great centerfielders in the past so they've helped me out a little bit here and there getting balls I wasn't able to get to. Just trying to progress myself out there, work harder each year and get better at that."
Harper played 477 innings in center field last season, by far the most since his rookie year. It wasn't just that playing center skewed his defensive data, he thinks it also caused more fatigue, which is understandable given the six-month grind of baseball.
"I think it was more of playing about 65 (games) in center field. That takes a toll on myself I guess, but it's no excuse," he said. "For me, it's just getting better out there. My knees felt great. Not making those overthrows, really making the right decisions."
On Monday, he got a chance in right field almost immediately and did make the correct decision on a sacrifice fly. The fourth batter of the game for the Rays, Avisail Garcia, flew out to Harper with runners on second and third. Both runners tagged up and Harper made a strong and accurate throw to third, missing Kevin Kiermaier by a step or two.
At the plate, Harper struck out looking on a 96 mph fastball in the first inning against one of the best lefties in the game, Blake Snell.
"Yeah, he's good," Harper said. "I was just happy to be able to get out there and face a guy like him, see some velo and some offspeed as well. Just see one of the best in baseball, even if it's the second game of the spring or the middle of the season."
After a fourth-inning walk — his third in four plate appearances this spring — Harper's day was done. He is expected to play Wednesday night in Tampa against the Yankees and again on Friday in Clearwater against the Blue Jays.
The Phillies are easing him back into games but will want to increase the number of innings he plays to get him back to the feel of playing a full nine.
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