One of the challenges a new manager faces when he takes over a ballclub is learning the personalities of his new players, what drives them as athletes and competitors.
It didn’t take Joe Girardi long to get to know Bryce Harper last year.
“In a short time, it really stuck out to me how hungry he is to win,” Girardi said. “He’s a fierce competitor and I don’t ever see that changing.”
Harper joined the Phillies two years ago on what was then a record-setting $330 million contract. The Phillies did not make the postseason in either of Harper’s first two seasons with the club.
Maybe 2021 is the year.
Harper began the bid to end the Phillies’ nine-year postseason drought on Tuesday when he went through his first workout of the spring in Clearwater, Florida. He was a day late getting going because he was finishing his offseason training program at home in Las Vegas and needed a day to go through COVID protocols. But Girardi wasn’t fretting over Harper’s schedule. The Phillies’ No. 3 hitter will be ready on April 1.
“Everything he does is genuine,” Girardi said. “He works extremely hard, loves his craft, loves to play and plays hard. That’s real. That’s who Bryce is. He comes to work every day ready to play physically and mentally.
“When performance matches up with work ethic and the work ethic is excellent, you say to yourself, ‘Now I know why he is so good.’ Those guys are leaders.”
The Phillies play their first Grapefruit League game on Sunday. It’s likely that Girardi will take some time to ease Harper into exhibition play, saving a chunk of his at-bats and time in right field for later in camp. Harper was slowed by a sore back toward the end of last season and his performance, as well as the team’s, slipped. The Phils need a healthy Harper for six months. That will require some workload management in February and March.
“He feels really good,” Girardi said. “But I had back issues and they can rear their ugly head. So, I know you have to stay on top of it. We’ll be in constant communication. But right now, we’re pleased and excited where he’s at.”
There was a picture floating around the internet Tuesday of Harper, bat in hand, biceps bulging, looking ready to get after it. Really, he looks like that all the time.
If Harper is a little extra hungry kicking off the new year, it might be because of how last year ended, with the sore back and the Phillies squandering a chance to make the playoffs under the weight of another poor September. They are 33-53 the last three Septembers.
Harper started the shortened 2020 season like a wrecking ball. He was hitting .343 with a .714 slugging percentage through August 22. Those were the sixth- and second-best marks in the majors at that point.
After his hot start, Harper tailed off over the final month. He hit just .225 and slugged just .442 after August 22. Later, it was revealed that he’d been playing through a back injury.
Despite the bad back and the decline in production over the final month, Harper did hit .268 with 13 homers, 33 RBIs and a .962 OPS, which was eighth-best in the NL. He led the majors with 49 walks and was fifth in on-base percentage at .420.
Harper is healthy now.
“He looks extremely strong and in tremendous shape,” Girardi said.
Mentally, Harper has to be in a good frame of mind, as well. He publicly petitioned the organization to re-sign J.T. Realmuto and got his wish when the All-Star catcher signed a five-year, $115.5 million contract.
Now, a new spring is here and it’s time to get back to work.