Phillies

Bryce Harper's lefty-mashing gives opposing managers even more to think about late in games

Bryce Harper's lefty-mashing gives opposing managers even more to think about late in games

With a runner or two in scoring position midway through a close game and Bryce Harper due up, managers opposing the Phillies will face the season-long decision whether to go after Harper or pitch around him with Rhys Hoskins lurking. 

On opening day, an intentional walk of Harper led to a Hoskins grand slam. Saturday night in Colorado, Harper continued to complicate that decision for opposing managers by hitting a three-run home run off a lefty reliever.

It is a situation that lacks a correct answer. Do you go lefty-lefty vs. Harper? Do you walk him and go righty-righty vs. Hoskins? Do you base it on who has looked better that night or the few preceding games?

Harper's homer came against 11th-year lefty specialist Mike Dunn, a reliever he's seen more than any other throughout his eight-year major-league career. In 23 plate appearances against lefties this season, Harper has gone 7 for 18 (.389) with two doubles, two homers, four walks and four strikeouts. He's reached base 12 times — more than half of his plate appearances vs. lefties.

This isn't small sample size theater, either. Over the last five seasons, the only left-handed hitter in the majors with a higher OPS against lefties than Harper is Joey Votto. Since 2015, Harper's hit .277/.383/.489 against lefties — a higher batting average than fellow lefties Corey Seager and Robinson Cano, a higher OBP than Freddie Freeman, a better slugging percentage than Christian Yelich.

The pitch Harper hit out last night against Dunn was not a good one. It was an 86 mph, middle-in slider that didn't move much. It was a mistake. But you still have to barrel up that mistake. It could have easily been pulled foul or skied high in the air.

Harper doesn't look great in every at-bat against a lefty. He occasionally pulls off, leaving himself in a bad position to make contact. One of the impressive parts of his game Saturday night was that he rolled over to the right side of the infield twice in his first three at-bats by trying to pull pitches too far outside, before hitting that two-strike homer off Dunn.

Every time Harper does damage against a left-hander, it will create one more wrinkle for the opposing manager to consider. The situation last night was the seventh inning, two outs, runners on second and third with the Phillies up 4-3. There could have been merit to pitching around Harper to get to Hoskins.

Twenty games in, we've seen the Phillies make the other team pay no matter which option they choose.

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Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Sunday was Scott Kingery’s first career start in center field and it came in his first game back. Kingery was sidelined for a month with a hamstring strain that was worse than the ones suffered by Jean Segura and Odubel Herrera. 

Kingery fared well in his return. There were no issues in the field, and at the plate he went 1 for 3 with a walk and a stolen base. The hit was a smooth line drive to left field in his first at-bat. 

With Herrera not providing much at the plate (.234 batting average, .297 OBP), Kingery will continue to see time in center field. It doesn’t make sense right now to sit Cesar Hernandez for him given how hot Hernandez has been for the last month. But Herrera and Maikel Franco are different stories. 

Kingery will not start Monday night in Chicago. The Phillies are monitoring his workload with him fresh off the IL. He will, however, likely start multiple games in the Cubs series. The Phillies face lefties Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester in consecutive games Tuesday through Thursday. Seems like a logical spot to sit Herrera for Kingery. 

Kingery was hitting .406 when he was sidelined. He started the season looking like a completely different player than last season. 

“The most important thing (while I was out) was trying to keep my timing,” Kingery said after the Phillies’ 7-5 win over the Rockies Sunday. “As soon as I could pick up the bat I was in the cage, working on my swing, fastball machine, doing whatever I could, seeing live arms BP-wise and stood in on a few bullpens just to see some different pitches. That's about all you can do when you're hurt. I feel good now.”

Defensively, Kingery will face some adjustments. Center field is not his natural position nor does he have extensive experience there. But his speed, range and instincts give him a chance to be an above-average defender there. 

“I think the main goal is my arm slot has always been for an infielder,” Kingery said. “So I have to work at getting a little more over the top and get a little more carry on the ball. I'd say that's one of the most important things for me right now.”

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Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

For a little while, all of those "What's wrong with Bryce Harper?" pieces can be shelved. 

Harper's not on the verge of breaking out of his slump. He's already broken out of it.

"It's not a close thing, I think he's there," manager Gabe Kapler said after the Phillies completed a weekend sweep of the visiting Rockies with a 7-5 win.

Harper had the game-winning home run, a 404-foot blast into the Phillies' bullpen to untie the game in the sixth inning (see observations). It was his second straight game with a homer and gave him four extra-base hits in his last three games. He's raised his slugging percentage by 47 points over that span.

"He might not get two hits and a home run tomorrow, but that doesn't mean he's not where he needs to be," Kapler said. "I think the home run that he hit to center field (Saturday) was the turning point and the moment where he started to feel more like Bryce."

In the all-important sixth inning Sunday, J.T. Realmuto tied the game with a pinch-hit home run off of a right-handed reliever and Harper followed three batters later with the deciding home run against a left-handed reliever. The inning highlighted how the Phillies' best hitters are equipped to deal with specialists from both sides. 

Realmuto's longball came against veteran reliever Bryan Shaw, who has lasted 10 years in the bigs because of his ability to retire right-handed hitters. Coming into Sunday, righties were 8 for 58 against Shaw, hitting .138.

Realmuto, like Rhys Hoskins, has reverse career platoon splits. Realmuto's hit .286 against righties with a .777 OPS compared to .250 vs. lefties with a .730 OPS. From 2016-18, Jean Segura and Realmuto ranked second and third in the majors, respectively, batting .292 and .291 against right-handed breaking balls.

The pitch Realmuto hit out from Shaw was not a breaking ball but a changeup. It was his first career pinch-hit home run and it came a few days after Kapler noted that Realmuto's power should be coming based on the quality of hard contact he'd been making.

Harper, meanwhile, took Dunn deep for the second time in a month. He is hitting .304/.407/.537 this season against lefties with six doubles and three homers.

Rare is the left-handed power hitter who doesn't have a major hole in his swing against lefties. Harper is that rare lefty. Last season, he had nine homers, 12 doubles and an .857 OPS against southpaws. The pace he's on this year is even better.

Harper knows he's faced Dunn a ton but doesn't pay attention to his career numbers against him or many other pitchers for that matter.

"He's always been a tough matchup for me," Harper said of Dunn. "Since I was younger, 2012, faced him my rookie year in the East when he was with Miami. Being able to face a guy like that, see his tendencies ... got him today.

"I just go with the feel. I don't really look at (the batter vs. pitcher matchup). Any given day, you could go out there and punch me out in three pitches, it's part of the game. Just gotta keep going. Any given day could be different."

In the span of three days, the Phillies removed the bad taste of the Brewers series from their mouths. They followed a season-high three straight losses with three straight wins. They head to Chicago leading the Braves by 2½ games, the Mets by 6½ games and the Nationals by 7½ games, pending Sunday night's result.

In Chicago, Harper's sample size of 54 plate appearances against lefties will grow. The Phillies face three straight lefties Tuesday through Thursday in Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester.

The Phillies aren't looking past the Cubs, who are the hottest team in baseball. But they definitely have the following series circled.

"We're really looking forward to getting back at Milwaukee," said Jerad Eickhoff, who started Sunday's game. 

"We didn't put our best foot forward against them. We're gonna take care of Chicago first and go into Milwaukee with a chip on our shoulder."

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