ATLANTA — It was Memorial Day, and Stephen Strasburg was an utter mess. He was dealing with a variety of nagging-but-seemingly-minor ailments that either knocked him out of games early or resulted in opponents scoring runs in bunches against him.
Strasburg’s ERA stood at 6.55, a staggering 109th out of 110 qualifying major-league starting pitchers. And so observers near and far all wondered the same thing: Was this the end of Stephen Strasburg as we knew him?
Four months later, Strasburg answered that question as definitively as possible. After a dominant stretch of 13 starts as impressive as any other in his career, the Nationals right-hander resurrected his season and silenced whatever doubts had been placed on him.
And with one final dominant performance Thursday night at Turner Field — six scoreless innings during a 3-0 victory over the Braves — Strasburg put a stamp on the most unusual season of his career. From 3-5 with a 6.55 ERA on Memorial Day to 11-7 with a 3.46 ERA on October 1.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself through this process,” he said.
Indeed he did. Strasburg learned two important lessons over the course of the last six months, one physical and one mental.
Start with the mental lesson.
“I think I learned to be more aware of my thoughts out there,” he said. “There are times in the game when you can kind of let your focus slip just for a split second. And I made it a point to not let that happen, to just focus on each pitch and just let everything I’ve got go on that individual pitch and turn the page.”
It had been a longstanding issue for Strasburg. If one thing didn’t go his way, it would lead to two or three more things turning sour.
Not so much down the stretch this year. Strasburg allowed more than three runs only once in his final 13 starts, suffering through perhaps only one or two truly poor innings the entire time.
Now, for the physical lesson. After trying to pitch through on-and-off neck discomfort, which was the domino effect of a spring training ankle sprain that threw his mechanics out of whack, Strasburg realized more than arm ailments merit a break from pitching.
“You definitely use your whole body to throw, and when one little thing that’s not necessarily arm related occurs, you really have to figure out if that’s going to alter your [mechanics],” he said. “I want to compete every single time, because I’ve been around long enough that I know I’m not going to feel 100 percent every time. But I’ve got a little more insight on what’s OK and what I shouldn’t go out there with. I learned from it.”
It’s the kind of thing a pitcher perhaps can’t truly understand until it has happened to him, as Strasburg found out.
“Before, it was arm issues,” he said of previous seasons. “And I was kind of like: ‘Oh, my arm hurts, so I probably shouldn’t throw anymore.’ My arm’s felt good all year. It’s just been little nicks and bruises to other parts of the body that play a huge role. And I didn’t really understand it at the time.”
Strasburg understands it now. And as he prepares for a long winter back home in San Diego, he can take solace knowing he proved to himself and anyone else out there who doubted him that he’s still got it.
Would you believe he wound up posting a lower WHIP, opponents’ batting average, on-base percentage and OPS and a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2015 than in 2014? Believe it.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It was a good learning experience.”
Over the course of a few posts, we’re going to take a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We’ll be breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation’s capital.
Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it’s clear that we’re entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper’s career, so it’s a natural point to take a step at and review where we’ve come from so far.
Act I (2012-2014)
Really, the story of Bryce Harper dates back to 2010, the year in which he was drafted (or possibly back to 2009, the year of his notorious Sports Illustrated cover story). 2010 was a year of endless excitement and optimism for the future of Nationals baseball, with the franchise enjoying the second of their back-to-back top overall draft picks.
In just about the most fortunate setup in draft history, Washington’s first two No. 1 picks came in 2009 and 2010, which happens to be the two draft classes headlined by the most hyped prospects entering the league in recent memory. 2009 brought the future ace in Stephen Strasburg, and 2010 brought the future face of the sport in Harper.
After continuing his rise to fame through the minors, Harper finally made his big-league debut in April of 2012 at the tender age of 19. The recent success of Juan Soto may lead some fans to believe it’s normal for uber prospects to reach the majors this quickly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most prospects are still in college or the lower levels of a team’s farm system at the age of 19, but Harper wasn’t most prospects.
Based purely on the crazy hype surrounding Harper, it’d be tough to exclude his Major League debut -- the Nats played the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 28, 2012 -- among the early highlights of his career. He showed off a lot of the skills we’d see over the next six years. There was his rocket arm, his flair for the dramatic, his pure strength and his steely demeanor in the face of overwhelming pressure.
What made his debut game even more special was that Strasburg was starting for the Nats. The team lost to the Dodgers in extra innings, but in one glorious evening, fans could see the future taking place right before their eyes.
The next major milestone for Harper was making the All-Star Game, which he did somewhat controversially in that magical 2012 season. Harper became the third teenage All-Star ever, and the first one to do so as a position player.
He entered the game as a reserve, and in two at-bats, walked and struck out. He had very little impact on the game itself but was still one of the biggest stories at an event made for baseball’s biggest stars.
There were other highlights during his rookie season, of course, as the team experienced its first success since returning to Washington. The Nats won 98 games that year to take the NL East, and Harper was helping lead the charge. The NLDS that year pitted the Nats against the 88-win St. Louis Cardinals, and the back-and-forth series went the full five games.
Harper notably struggled during his first exposure to October baseball, hitting just 3-for-23. He struck out eight times, which the most between both teams. The highlight, however, was a Game 5 home run off Adam Wainwright. Harper had already tripled in the Nats’ three-run first inning, and he led off the third with a solo blast to extend the lead to 4-0. At the time, it felt like the team’s youngest superstar cemented a franchise-altering win.
This is the part where Nats fans yell at me for reminding them of what came next.
Drew Storen fell apart in the ninth inning, the Cardinals completed the comeback victory, and the Nats were eliminated from the playoffs. Harper did get an at-bat in the 9th inning and struck out swinging. Say what you want, but he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Harper deservedly won the National League Rookie of the Year that season, and looking back, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that close to unanimous (his stiffest competition came from Wade Miley and Todd Frazier). His 5.2 WAR and 57 extra-base hits both represented modern era records for a teenage hitter, and Harper even found himself getting down-ballot MVP votes (he finished 30th).
It was a historic season, and Harper has the accolades to show for it. The future was bright.
The Follow Up
Bryce Harper’s 2013 season didn’t go as well as 2012 for a litany of reasons. The team surrounding him was worse, failing to follow up 2012 with another postseason run. He struggled with injuries, including missing time after crashing into an outfield wall that May. It was a signature aggressive Harper play, going all-out in an attempt to help the team, but ended up being costly. He only ended up playing in 118 games and hitting 20 home runs. He was still an All-Star, but that was partially aided by his fame and stature.
That said, he kicked off the 2013 in incredible fashion, and that Opening Day stands out as his clearest highlight from the entire season. Harper didn’t just become the fourth-youngest player to ever homer on Opening Day (trailing names like Ken Griffey, Jr. and Robin Yount), but he ended up hitting home runs in his first two plate appearances. He was the first player to do so in franchise history and did it at the prodigious age of 20.
His powerful start to the year sent fans into a frenzy, and he gave them a curtain call four innings into the new season. The success wouldn’t last throughout the summer, but it was a wild start and is one of the lasting highlights from the early years of Harper’s career.
The Postseason Return
The 2014 regular season would be a forgettable one for Harper. Thanks to a thumb injury he suffered running the bases, Harper set a career-low in games played with exactly 100. The time missed contributed to a third straight season with fewer home runs than the last, but his rate stats suffered as well. He had the lowest slugging percentage and OPS of his career, and it remains the only season in which he wasn’t named to the National League All-Star team.
For his regular season struggles, however, Harper experienced much more success in his second postseason. The Nats bounced back from a down 2013 team, beating up on a weak division and winning 96 games to lead the National League. They ended up facing another inferior NLDS opponent in the San Francisco Giants, and the end result was the same as in 2012.
The Giants may have won the series thanks to a dominant performance by their pitching staff (the Nats batted .164 as a team), but Harper held his own this time around. In what still stands out to this day as his strongest postseason performance, Harper had a slash line of .294/.368/.882, buoyed by his three home runs in four games. The 1.251 OPS represents by far a career-high, and his three home runs were 75 percent of the team’s total in the series.
He went 0-for-7 in the 18-inning Game 2 marathon, but essentially was the entire Washington offense in Games 1, 3 and 4. He even launched a ball into the third deck at Nats Park in Game 1. It was a titanic blast that won’t soon be forgotten.
The clear highlight, however, came in Game 4. The Nats fell behind 2-0 early, but Harper got them on the board with a fifth-inning double. Trailing 2-1, he came to bat in the seventh and blasted his third home run of the series to tie the game. The Nats were eight outs from elimination, and Harper had saved them.
Of course, once again, the bullpen would go on to lose the game for the Nats and end their season. Harper again had a chance in a do-or-die 9th inning, and this time, the Giants learned their lesson and walked him. His team lost, but the legend of Bryce Harper was cemented.