WASHINGTON — There are several acceptable places to find the digits 214. They help you make a phone call to Dallas. They make a handy abbreviation for Valentine’s Day. They take you to a live play-by-play station on the satellite radio dial.
Here’s where no one expects to see it: in the batting average column for Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals slugger who will start in center field at his home park in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. Harper’s .214 average is the lowest of the 43 position players named to the All-Star teams.
“I look up there and see my average and go, ‘Oh man,’” Harper said on Monday, before competing in the Home Run Derby. “But I look over a little bit to the right side of that and see 23 homers and 53 R.B.I. and 80 walks and things like that, so I don’t know. Should I be hitting .300 or .280? Yeah, absolutely. I guess I am where I’m at, and hopefully the only way I can go is up.”
Harper’s bookkeeping was off — he actually has 54 runs batted in and 78 walks — but his point was that he remains a productive slugger with a robust .365 on-base percentage. Yet even in a season of falling averages across baseball, .214 is startling for a player who hit more than 100 points higher last season.
The agent Scott Boras will take Harper into the free agent market this off-season, just after Harper turns 26 years old. It may be the most anticipated free agency for a Boras client since 2000, when Alex Rodriguez scored an industry-rattling 10-year, $252 million deal to leave Seattle for Texas at age 25.
Naturally, Boras does not expect Harper’s average to affect the value of his next contract. Boras believes baseball should mandate that two infielders play on each side of second base, to prevent the drastic infield shifts that have become common. Harper, he said, is doing his best.
“The teams are directing the players what to do, and they’re saying, ‘Go out and be your normal self; we get it that left-handed sluggers are going to have a lower average,’” Boras said, adding later, “In Harp’s case, he’s seeing the least amount of strikes in the game. You want to know the greatest gradient of managerial fear, concern, how you respect others? You don’t throw them strikes.”
By Fangraphs’ measurements, Harper has been making consistent hard contact this season (41.1 percent, a career high), but the rewards are shrinking because of a career-low .226 average on balls in play. Harper is pulling the ball more this year, too, encouraging teams to keep shifting.
“How do you beat it? You can’t,” Harper said. “If you hit a ball in the hole, you’re out. If you hit a ball up the middle, you’re out. If I have a kid, I’m not going to tell him to stay through the middle anymore, because you hit a ball up the middle, you’re out. I guess guys could bunt down the third base line, but you don’t get paid to bunt. If you hit it over all of ’em, that’s how you beat it.”
The retired slugger David Ortiz, who managed in the Futures Game on Sunday, faced many shifts and claimed (somewhat dubiously) that they had cost him 500 career hits. In any case, Ortiz said Harper should not be judged by batting average.
“He’s one of the best hitters in the game, so you ask that question to yourself, ‘How come this guy is hitting .220?’” Ortiz said. “Then you look at this guy hitting line drives right in front of the right fielder — it’s supposed to be a hit. Then he hits a line drive to the middle that is supposed to be another hit, and it seems like he has 20 guys playing defense against him. So that answers your question.”
The shift does not explain everything, though. Harper has also failed to capitalize on the few pitches he does get to hit, connecting on 76.7 percent of pitches in the strike zone — the lowest rate of his career and well below the league average of 85.5. His bewildering season is part of the reason the Nationals are just 48-48, perhaps squandering their last chance to win with him on the roster.
“Everybody knew that at the beginning of the year: this could possibly be my last year in D.C.,” Harper said. “There’s no elephant in the room. Everybody knows that’s a possibility. But I’m not really focused on that. I’m focused on what I can do to help this team win on a daily basis, and I look forward to doing that.”
To that end, Harper named several players the Nationals need to come off the disabled list or to find their footing after lengthy injuries, including Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Matt Wieters and Adam Eaton. Philadelphia leads the division at 53-42 with Atlanta a half-game back, and Harper acknowledged those teams may soon improve through trades; the Phillies are a leading contender to trade for the star Baltimore shortstop Manny Machado.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go,” Harper said. “What are we back? How many games? Five and a half back? I think we’ve got a chance.”
This may be Harper’s last chance in Washington, but he insisted the uncertainty of his future did not bother him. Every season is the same, Harper said, always filled with pressure. A short while later, he reconsidered that stance.
“The only pressure I feel is for every other guy in my clubhouse, for every guy on my team and my fans in my stadium,” he said. “I get chills. I mean, there’s nothing greater than going out there and putting on 34 and being Bryce Harper and playing the game that I love.”