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What Bryce Harper has learned as a hitter in '18

MLB.com @JamalCollier

WASHINGTON -- Confidence has never been an issue for Bryce Harper -- not even during the lowest moments of his slump this season, the most prolonged of his career. He would insist then that his swing felt good, even when the results on the field did not support such a claim. Harper kept outward signs of frustration to a minimum, attempting to keep the same demeanor every day, no matter what the results.

"A guy asked me a few weeks ago if I was worried. I wasn't worried about anything," Harper said. "I think I'm in a good spot right now; I was in a good spot when I was there [in a slump]. I was just missing pitches.

WASHINGTON -- Confidence has never been an issue for Bryce Harper -- not even during the lowest moments of his slump this season, the most prolonged of his career. He would insist then that his swing felt good, even when the results on the field did not support such a claim. Harper kept outward signs of frustration to a minimum, attempting to keep the same demeanor every day, no matter what the results.

"A guy asked me a few weeks ago if I was worried. I wasn't worried about anything," Harper said. "I think I'm in a good spot right now; I was in a good spot when I was there [in a slump]. I was just missing pitches.

"I think going through the lull of hitting .210 or whatever I was, it's definitely going to make me a better hitter. I'm a 300 hitter."

It's possible Harper will emerge from this season a better -- or at least a more complete -- hitter, one who understands his swing better than he did at the start of the season. He began the year trying to implement more loft into his swing, with an eye toward increasing his power numbers.

It worked. At least, kind of.

On one hand, Harper has hit the second-most home runs of his career with 34, but he also fell into some bad habits at the plate that took away from what makes him dangerous as a hitter.

"He found out that it didn't translate into the games," hitting coach Kevin Long said. "It would translate as high as BP, but as soon as he got to the game, it just didn't translate the way he thought it would."

After Harper's hot start to the season, pitchers predictably stopped throwing him strikes, but he did not lay off the bait. His chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone peaked at 32.2 percent in May and stood at 27.7 percent overall in the first half. Coaches implored Harper to focus on driving the ball to the middle of the field more often and put less emphasis on pulling the ball.

Video: WSH@MIA: Harper shows patience with 5 walks in win

Harper has been much more disciplined in the second half. In Tuesday's 4-3 win against the Marlins, he walked five times, the most in a single game among National League hitters and tied for the most in the Majors this season with Rougned Odor (Aug. 2). Harper has cut his chase rate down to 22.2 percent in the second half, and he has gone outside the zone just 18.5 percent of the time in September. He has gotten out of whack at times in his career when he hasn't received pitches to hit consistently -- which Long believes will be a constant battle -- but when Harper is at his best, he is able to balance that patience with the ability to punish mistakes in the strike zone.

Now Harper is back to crushing fastballs, batting .385 with a .747 slugging percentage against them in the second half after a pedestrian .257 with a .599 slugging percentage against fastballs in the first half. And he is using the middle of the field more frequently, with 36.4 percent of his fly balls and line drives coming through the middle in the second half, including seven homers and five doubles, up seven percent from the first half.

"I think in the end, you're starting to see the fruits from his labor," Long said. "That shows you what kind of kid you're talking about. His baseball intellect is really, really high -- a lot like A-Rod's was. Here's a guy who wants to be good, wants to be great and is willing to put in the time that it takes to do that."

Harper, who on Thursday will begin what could be his final homestand in his career with the Nationals, has spent the second half swatting away any outside doubts about his value that two-month-long skid may have created.

Since the All-Star break, Harper has posted a slash line of .304/.444/.560 with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs. His 2018 season totals (.394 OBP, .894 OPS, 136 wRC+) are not far off from his career averages (.388 OBP, .901 OPS, 140 wRC+). Even Harper's much-discussed batting average has rebounded nicely to .247, after reaching its lowest point at .209 on June 20.

Harper has also scored 97 runs, notched 97 RBIs and walked 123 times this season, and he is closing in on becoming just the sixth player since 2014 to reach triple digits in each statistic -- joining Joey Votto, Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Bautista.

"I'm proud," Long said. "I'm a proud hitting coach because -- it's just hard. This game is hard. And when you see somebody go through what he went through and the struggles he went through and to come out where he's at right now, I feel pretty good about it and he does. He feels like he's a better hitter now."

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper