We’ve been here before.
Just last April, Bryce Harper hit .391 with nine home runs, 26 RBIs, more walks than strikeouts and a Bondsian 1.281 OPS. He hit nine home runs the next two months combined, then had a big July and was in the MVP running until he went down with a knee injury in August.
In 2016, he had nine home runs and 24 RBIs in April, slugged .714, had more walks than strikeouts and looked like he would repeat as National League MVP. He hit just 15 home runs the rest of the season, however, and although neither Harper nor the Nationals ever confirmed it, he likely played through some sort of shoulder issue.
In 2015, Harper had five home runs in April and 13 in May, remained healthy all season, had a big September with 10 more home runs and captured MVP honors as he led the NL in homers, runs, on-base percentage and slugging.
There’s little doubt that when Harper is healthy and locked in, he’s as good as any hitter in the game. The hard truth, however, is that he has had just one complete season at that level in his career. It was a monster season, to be sure: 10.0 WAR in that MVP campaign. The only other position players to reach 10 WAR in a season this century are Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Trout. Nonetheless, from his rookie season in 2012 through 2017, Harper ranks just 18th in WAR among position players, wedged between Kyle Seager and Freddie Freeman, two players with decidedly fewer magazine covers than Harper.
In Monday’s 8-1 win for the Nationals over the Braves, Harper blasted his third home run in two games, a 425-foot shot off lefty Sean Newcomb. He also walked four times, and even though there were two outs in the ninth when he came up for a sixth plate appearance, the Braves brought in a lefty to face him (Harper grounded out). That’s some serious respect.
In his first four games, Harper is hitting .417/.550/1.167 with six walks and no strikeouts. Yes, he has faced the Reds and then an inexperienced Atlanta starter, but that early walk ratio is perhaps a sign of big things to come for 2018. In his MVP season, Harper had 109 unintentional walks and 131 strikeouts; in 2016, it was 88 and 117; last year, that ratio dropped to 57 and 99. His chase rate increased from 25 and 24 percent the previous two seasons to 30.6 percent, which led to a higher swinging-strike rate. He still hit .319/.413/.595.
So imagine Harper at the top of his game for six months, with a little better plate discipline and no nagging injuries. He already is this season’s focal player in many ways, trying to lead the Nationals out of the first round of the playoffs and to a World Series title with his impending free agency looming in the background. He’s off to a $400 million start.
Astros celebrate championship: The Astros had a nice pregame ceremony that included the raising of the World Series banner ... only to hit a minor snafu when the draping got caught and a worker had to use a leaf blower to get it untangled, drawing a few chuckles from Astros players.
The best part came when Rich Dauer, last year’s first-base coach, threw out the first pitch. Dauer nearly died after feeling ill during the World Series parade (he had fallen at home, which caused bleeding in his brain). He had surgery for an acute subdural hematoma, spent three days in a coma and doctors said he had a 3 percent chance of survival.
It was an emotional return to the field today for Rich Dauer.— Houston Astros (@astros) April 2, 2018
We couldn't be happier to have you here, Coach! pic.twitter.com/AeD7Q5rwjg
From there, Charlie Morton picked up where he left off in Game 7 of the World Series, tossing six scoreless innings in a 6-1 victory over the Orioles. Morton induced 17 swing-and-misses, matching his career high, and averaged 96.7 mph with his fastball. Reminder: He’s the team’s No. 5 starter. Reminder: The Astros are good. Morton didn’t even think he had his "A" stuff, however. (He was a little all over the place with his fastball, although it worked in an effectively wild kind of way.)
Charlie Morton: "I don't think I threw the ball great tonight. I think the results were pretty good."— Jake Kaplan (@jakemkaplan) April 3, 2018
Gerrit Cole, putting on his shoes at his locker a few feet away: "Your standards are high, Charles."
One minor concern: Carlos Correa, who fouled a ball off his foot on Sunday, left after one at-bat Monday. He told ESPN’s Marly Rivera he felt some pain, and while there’s structural damage, he’s day-to-day for now.
Attendance woes: There were several “Yikes” tweets about the A’s announced attendance of 7,416. A’s beat writer Susan Slusser reported it was the team’s lowest attendance since April 3, 2003, when the team drew 6,295 fans. That game, however, was a makeup game after a planned trip to Japan had been canceled.
Maybe even more surprising was Toronto’s attendance of 16,629. The Blue Jays had just six crowds below 30,000 last season, with a low of 28,401 for a September game against the Orioles. The Jays’ attendance had soared past 3 million each of the past two seasons, the first time they had reached that mark since drawing 4 million in 1993. Is the bandwagon falling apart after one sub-.500 season?
Yes, it was a Monday night in early April, not exactly prime time for big attendance figures. The extra off days this season help with travel, but making a season that’s already too long for many fans a week longer doesn’t help.
The Blue Jays game, a 4-2 win over the White Sox, did offer an interesting moment when Josh Donaldson homered and then pretended to blow a whistle toward the White Sox dugout. Apparently, White Sox coach Daryl Boston whistles whenever the Sox make a good defensive play -- which seems as ridiculous as it must sound -- and Donaldson was miffed about a whistle earlier in the game when he grounded out. While the Sox dugout laughed at the gesture, this is Josh Donaldson we’re talking about: He didn’t do it to draw a laugh.
Bartolo Colon is still alive and kicking: The A’s drew fewer than 8,000 fans even though Colon started for the Rangers, giving him 21 seasons in the majors. The Rangers became the 11th team he has started for, one fewer than Mike Morgan’s record of 12, and teams seem determined to give him a chance to break Morgan’s mark. I don’t know what’s more remarkable: That Colon was given another opportunity to start after posting a 6.48 ERA last year for the Braves and Twins, or that he allowed just one run in six innings and looked pretty good on Monday. He had just five starts of that quality last year out of 28 outings, although two of those did come in April.
Colon still throws almost all fastballs and sinkers -- 72 of his 89 pitches Monday -- and throws strikes, but he turns 45 in May and starting him feels more like a move of desperation for a potential playoff contender than one that is likely to pay dividends.