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Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMarch 17, 2017

Early spring training stats mean little, and early spring proclamations of improved health can sometimes mean even less.

So should you care that Bryce Harper hit five home runs in his first 10 spring games for the Washington Nationals or that teammates such as Ryan Zimmerman are telling reporters, “As far as health-wise…he looks great”? Should you read anything into it in terms of Harper’s chances for a big 2017 rebound?

Yes, you should, and here’s why: When players as young and talented as Harper have as big a drop-off in performance as he had from 2015 to 2016, there has to be a reason. Of all the reasons mentioned with Harper last year—health, mechanics or aftereffects of the Joe Maddon walkathon in May—the one that always made the most sense was that Harper’s right shoulder was hurt.

Tom Verducci wrote it for Sports Illustrated in August, when Harper had gone 47 at-bats without a home run. The Nationals and Harper denied it, and Verducci wrote it again in September, when Harper was hitting .164 over a span of 61 at-bats. Verducci had sources, but he also had numbers, including one showing Harper wasn’t hitting the ball as hard.

Harper's poor 2016 season had everyone searching for answers.

Harper’s poor 2016 season had everyone searching for answers.Harry How/Getty Images

Teams and players deny injuries all the time, so that’s not a big deal. What would be a big deal is if the injury helps explain Harper’s 2016 numbers, and if his early spring success is a better sign than any words of his improved health.

People who know Harper say the shoulder wasn’t his only issue last year. He did have problems with his swing, and he didn’t deal with it well. But those things can be resolved if Harper’s body is strong enough now to allow him to perform.

Remember, this is a guy who won’t turn 25 until October, a guy whose 2015 numbers were so good that we at Bleacher Report were comparing them to those put up by Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.

Harper might well have been the best player in baseball then. The Harper-Mike Trout comparisons were fair.

It’s hard to make any comparison like that now. In Trout’s worst full season in the major leagues, his OPS was .939 (better than the career OPS of Hank Aaron or Alex Rodriguez). Harper’s OPS was 1.109 in 2015 (far better than Trout’s best). Harper’s OPS was .814 (the same as Adam Rosales) last year.

His OPS through 12 games this spring: 1.361. Take a look at that, and take a look at this Harper home run video that MLB’s Twitter account posted this week:


Yeah, he does look healthy. The right shoulder does look strong enough to handle that vicious swing and a 94 mph fastball.

And yes, that does look like the Harper we saw and marveled at in 2015.

In a Jorge Castillo story this week in the Washington Post, Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu brought up the May series where Harper walked 13 times in four games. He also suggested Harper’s swing is quieter now, although Harper himself denied making any changes.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker spoke of Harper not missing pitches to hit. But Baker also spoke about Harper’s mental state this spring.

“He just seems more focused, more determined,” Baker said.

Others who have spoken to Harper this spring agree he’s in a better mental place than he was last year. Harper himself told MLB.com this was “probably my best offseason.”

We may never know everything that went into Harper’s poor 2016, how much of it was the shoulder and how that played in with everything else. What does seem obvious is that a healthy, happy, focused and determined Harper should be a much better player in 2017.

If you didn’t know anything else about him, you’d bet on a 2017 rebound because of his age and skills. But we do know more about him, and while the evidence from this spring is limited, it’s still a good sign for Harper and the Nationals.

“I think right now he’s really calm like he was his MVP year,” Schu told Castillo, referring to Harper’s approach at the plate.

Nobody wins an MVP in March. Maikel Franco led the major leagues with nine home runs last spring, then he finished tied for 57th in the majors in home runs once the games counted.

The difference here is we know what Harper can do when the games count. We’ve seen it before. We saw it just two years ago.

This could well be the season we see it again.

 

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.



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