There may only be one week of the 2014 season in the books, but there are already a couple of early signs that, should they continue, will concern Washington Nationals fans.
There is no doubt Bryce Harper has the potential to win the NL MVP (I picked him to do so in our staff poll). The first week of the season highlights potential problems, albeit on a small sample size, with his temperament at the plate and in general.
In his previous two seasons, Harper struck out 20.1% and 18.9% of the time, around the same level as Mike Trout and not even the worst on the Nats — that prize goes to Adam LaRoche for 2013 with a rate of 22.2%.
The start of the 2014 season has seen Harper strike out 10 times in his first 21 at-bats while only managing to draw one walk. There are a couple of reasons for this, depending on your viewpoint. Manager Matt Williams has said that Harper is “a tick off” with his timing, hence the decision to drop him to seventh in the batting order for the home opener on Friday. The other explanation is Harper starts the season wanting to make a quick jump with his stats and wants to hit home runs from his first at-bat of the season, like he did last year; the longer he has to wait, the more anxious he becomes at the plate, and then he starts chasing balls he wouldn’t usually and his strikeout rate increases.
There is, of course, a third possible explanation. Maybe Harper isn’t the player he has been in the first two seasons and this is just a regression now that pitchers have worked him out. I don’t think that’s the case, and Williams and GM Mike Rizzo are hoping it isn’t.
Harper has also shown that his temperament with equipment is also suffering at the start of the season. He got thrown out of one of the last spring training games after disputing a regulation out at first base, and during the weekend series with Atlanta, TV cameras caught him throwing down his bat and helmet after taking a dubious called third strike, followed by smashing his hand into the dugout later in the series after making another out.
Harper’s struggles coincide with more trouble for Ryan Zimmerman, who has been living on borrowed time at third base for a couple of years now. The throwing arm was a cause for anxiety for long parts of last season and led to Zimmerman missing almost 10 percent of Nats games. He’s already recorded a couple of errors this year, including one Saturday, which resulted in the Nats dropping the game to the Braves.
Zimmerman had an MRI on that troublesome shoulder, which apparently showed no structural damage, but he’ll be reassessed before the series with the Marlins starts on Tuesday. Chances are he switches to first base and pinch-hitter role for the next couple of weeks to see if he can revert back to third base without having to go on the DL.
The Nats have managed to cover up these issues to post a 4-2 record and have the pitching coming against the Marlins to improve on that record. The time may be coming when Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon have to take more responsibility on the infield.
The Harper and Zimmerman concerns come with the proviso that the season is still barely underway and chances are one or both of the problems will be worked out and forgotten before long. The fact remains, though, both are recurring and each has the chance to derail what could otherwise be a season of glory in the District.