JUPITER, Fla. -- The thing that has stood out the most to new hitting coach Kevin Long about Bryce Harper is the way he takes batting practice. In the batting cage before the game, Harper works at near game speed, whereas most hitters want to slow things down to around
JUPITER, Fla. -- The thing that has stood out the most to new hitting coach Kevin Long about Bryce Harper is the way he takes batting practice. In the batting cage before the game, Harper works at near game speed, whereas most hitters want to slow things down to around 60 or 70 percent to work on adjustments. And Long has been amazed at how precise Harper can be -- the short, compact swing, and hitting the ball on the barrel every single time.
"His work is almost flawless," Long said. "There's days where he doesn't mis-hit one ball. It's that good. And then you just go, 'Wow, this guy's special.'"
MLB.com is taking a look at the players to watch for all 30 Major League clubs, and for the Nationals, it is Harper.
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Even with all Harper has accomplished in his young career, there is that tantalizing potential, the thought that perhaps he still has another level to reach. These are the sorts of expectations lavished upon Harper since he arrived on the national stage at the age of 16 on the cover of Sports Illustrated, then made his MLB debut at 19. By the age of 22, he was the youngest unanimous National League Most Valuable Player in history.
And Harper will command even more attention this season because he is about to begin the final year of his contract with Washington. He is headed toward a highly anticipated free agency, as speculation and rumors about his potential landing spot and the size of his contract have been swirling for years.
Of course, Harper made it clear from Day 1 this spring that he is not interested in talking about what's to come in 2019, because he is focused on this season.
"Every single year I go in, I have my same goals, I have my same plans," Harper said. "And that's to win. That's to be prepared to focus on every single day and do the things I can to help this team win."
So far he has done his part. Entering Friday he was hitting .342 with a .998 OPS and two homers. He is even running more on the bases. On Friday night, he stole his third base of the spring, after stealing just four all of last season. Perhaps the only thing that has prevented him from being an annual contender for the NL MVP Award has been health. He was one of the favorites to win the award last season before a hyperextended knee in August cost him about a month.
That's why keeping Harper healthy has been one of the Nationals' main goals this spring. When he has stayed on the field, he has proven to be one of baseball's best players.
"He challenges himself to do the best he can every day," said manager Dave Martinez. "We talked a lot about him going out and trying to win the Gold Glove without running into walls."
And working with Long, one of baseball's most respected hitting coaches, could also unlock new potential. Harper and Long have been focused on getting Harper's swing more consistent. It's a minor issue Long has pointed out, but when Harper is slumping or a bit off at the plate, he often puts too much weight on the front leg.
"I think right now what we're trying to do is calm him down just a little bit," Long said, "and actually use the ground a little bit more and not try to be as violent from the front side. He's all for it, he gets it. So we're building a pretty good relationship right now, and it's moving in the right direction.
"But his work is so good, it's amazing."
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.