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Bryce Harper opens up about his defensive shortcomings last season

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Bryce Harper opens up about his defensive shortcomings last season

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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Joe Girardi impressed with Jean Segura, smitten with Phillies catching prospect Rafael Marchan

Joe Girardi impressed with Jean Segura, smitten with Phillies catching prospect Rafael Marchan

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Six games into the exhibition schedule, Joe Girardi is really liking what he sees of two players.

One might end up being his third baseman this season.

The other will play in the low minors.

Jean Segura played well at third base in the Phillies’ 5-4 win over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday. He made a nifty backhand stop of a ball off the bat of Nelson Cruz to start a 5-4-3 double play in the first inning. He also had a pair of hits, including a double. He is 4 for 9 with two doubles in the early going.

“Jean had a really good day,” Girardi said. “That (double play) was not an easy play. What I like is it’s smooth, it’s not panicky. Looks like he’s been doing it.”

The Phillies are evaluating Segura’s ability to play third base. They are also taking stock of his comfort level at the position because he has never played there before. If Segura can handle third base, he will open the season there and Scott Kingery will play second base, his best position.

So far this spring, Segura has played three games at third base. If he continues to look good there, would the Phillies even bother to look at him at second, where he does have experience, this spring?

“That’s a conversation we’d have in a week or so,” Girardi said. “We have to continue to see what it looks like. Scott looks good at second. If Jean looks comfortable at third and it seems like Didi and him have a good thing going there, we might just leave him. I don’t know. It’s too early.”

Segura played shortstop for the Phillies last season. He is moving from that position to make room for Didi Gregorius, who signed a one-year, $14 million contract in December.

CATCHING THE BOSS’ EYE

Girardi, who caught for 15 seasons in the big leagues, has become smitten with Rafael Marchan, a catching prospect from Venezuela who turned 21 on Tuesday.

“The kid does a lot of things right,” said Girardi.

Marchan has gotten a chance to play in big-league camp because Andrew Knapp (oblique) and Deivy Grullon (tooth infection) have missed some time.

Phillies officials felt comfortable enough with Marchan’s defense to give him the start with Zach Eflin on the mound Wednesday. Marchan responded with two hits and was praised for his work behind the plate by Eflin. Marchan had one miscue -- he overran a high, spinning pop up -- but Girardi chalked that up to inexperience.

“I told him, ‘You finally made a mistake -- the pop up,’“ Girardi said with a laugh. “He just went after it too quickly.”

Girardi called Marchan “a master” blocker of balls in the dirt earlier this week.

Marchan is a 5-foot-9 switch-hitter. He was a shortstop until he started working out for teams as a catcher in 2015 and the Phillies signed him for $200,000. He has played 136 professional games in Single A the last two seasons and hit .285. He has yet to hit a homer in pro ball, but that doesn’t concern Girardi.

“Here’s my thought,” Girardi said. “He doesn’t have to show power. He just has to hit, be an adequate hitter, or he could become a really good hitter. Take his walks, handle the bat. Defensively, he’s going to save you runs by catching. Those are RBIs for me. He’s going to save you a lot of runs catching.”

Marchan went unselected in the Rule 5 draft in December, not surprising because of his age, experience level and still-developing bat. But if he has a good year in 2020, he might not get through the draft.

Girardi thinks Marchan can develop into a big-leaguer, much like another converted infielder once did with the Phillies.

“I’m not comparing here, but Carlos Ruiz was not a great hitter when he first came up,” Girardi said. “He’s got talent and you hope he figures out the bat part of it because if he does, you have something really special.”

That’s high praise.

HEALTH CHECK

Girardi said Adam Haseley checked out fine in concussion protocol but would not return to action for another day or two. Haseley banged his head on the ground attempting a diving catch on Tuesday.

Outfielder Matt Szczur has yet to play because of a hamstring injury. Reliever Robert Stock has forearm pain and will be examined on Thursday.

UP NEXT

The Phillies play the Red Sox in Fort Myers on Thursday. Nick Pivetta will start.

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Outs are precious and Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin will get them his way in 2020

Outs are precious and Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin will get them his way in 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It was just one pitch in the first inning of an exhibition game Wednesday, but it painted a vivid picture of who Zach Eflin was as a pitcher last year and who he wants to be this year.

With a man on first base and one out, Eflin was facing Nelson Cruz. The Minnesota Twins’ designated hitter is one of the most dangerous power hitters in the game, having averaged 34 homers over the last 11 seasons.

The count went full on Cruz and Eflin didn’t hesitate. He went to his best pitch, the sinking fastball. Cruz beat a hard ground ball to third and Jean Segura made a nice backhand play to start a 5-4-3 double play to end the frame.

“I was pretty excited about that,” Eflin said later. “Going back to my sinker. It’s a situation where I need to throw it.”

Eflin was asked what pitch he would have thrown in that situation last season.

“Ah, last year, maybe fastball at the top of the zone,” he said. “Maybe I would have tried to rip a hard cutter or slider. Something like that.”

The sinker has always been Eflin’s bread and butter pitch. But last season, under former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young, he was encouraged to emphasize four-seam, power fastballs at the top of the strike zone. He did have some success with the approach early in the season, but eventually lost his way and his spot in the rotation. After some soul searching and some counsel from teammates such as Jake Arrieta, Eflin decided that if he ever returned to the rotation he would go back to featuring his best pitch, a fastball with movement down in the zone. He returned to the rotation in mid-August, ironically when Arrieta went down with an elbow injury, and pitched well over the final weeks of the season to solidify his place this year's season-opening rotation.

“It’s not easy,” said Eflin, recalling last season’s struggles. “When you’re trying to be someone you’re not, it’s not the best way to go about it.

“At the end of the day, we want to feel as good as we can on the mound and when you’re trying to do something different, you don’t feel good.”

With each passing day, another pitcher seems to step up and offer thoughts about how wonderful life has been under new pitching coach Bryan Price in the first few weeks of camp. Price is open-minded to the new-school ways of pitching, but he’s committed to bringing back some old-school philosophies. He has stressed the down-and-away fastball. He has stressed that pitchers work to their strengths. For Eflin, that means the sinker.

“What everybody is focused on right now is being themselves and realizing what got us to the big leagues and taking advantage of doing what you’re good at, so I think that’s a huge step for everybody,” Eflin said. “I think the underlying factor is just being able to stay to our strengths and really just attacking the hitters, and for us starters to go as deep as we can in a game and really relieve the bullpen as much as we can so they’re fresh come the end of the season and playoffs. Just that being put in our heads as a starting staff is huge.”

Though the sinker is Eflin’s strength, he still has the power on his fastball to pitch occasionally at the top of the zone. In fact, it’s important that he do that occasionally to change a hitter’s eye level and prevent them from sitting on a particular pitch or location. Eflin knows this. He learned a lot about himself and pitching last year. That much was evident in the first inning of his spring debut Wednesday: Sinker, ground ball, double play.

“Outs are really precious in this game regardless of how hard they hit it, so just to be able to do that is good,” he said.

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