Harper's volunteer duty at first base buoys Phillies

October 18th, 2023

PHOENIX -- Countless moments make a baseball season.

had one in April that changed the Phillies’ entire year.

“Trea [Turner] called him Superman the other day,” Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson said this week. “What he does for us is incredible.”

Harper sees baseball at both macro and micro levels. He can speak to the state of the game like few players can. He can dissect the tiniest detail from a game, like a savant. So Harper immediately understood in March how much Rhys Hoskins’ ACL tear would upend the Phillies’ offensive and defensive plans.

The Phillies first hoped Darick Hall could play first base against right-handed pitching, but he suffered a thumb injury on April 6 that required surgery. The Phillies asked Alec Bohm to bounce back and forth from third base to first base, alternating at first with Kody Clemens and later Drew Ellis. It wasn’t ideal.

Harper thought he could help. So one day in early April, while still recovering from Tommy John surgery, he volunteered to play first base, a position he had never played before.

“It was kind of a revolving door over there at the time,” Harper said. “We were trying to figure out what was going to happen and how I was going to come back -- and if I was going to come back at any capacity in the outfield or just DH. Knowing that we have so many options for DH and outfield, I just thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Harper said he initiated the idea with Phillies manager Rob Thomson and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.

“If they tell me to take a hike, I will,” Harper recalled.

Said Dickerson: “My reaction was, ‘Does he really?’ Meaning, ‘OK, I hear you, but it's not easy.’”

But everybody said OK, which changed everything. Harper played first base for the first time on July 21 in Cleveland. Bohm moved to third base full time. Kyle Schwarber shifted from left field to DH, which improved the outfield defense.

“He sees what can make this team the best,” Bohm said.

Harper finished the regular season at +2 outs above average, according to Statcast. It is tied for the third-highest OAA among Phillies first basemen since 2016. He finished with 1 defensive run saved, according to FanGraphs.

He is not just a warm body there. He can play.

Coach Bobby Dickerson hits a ground ball to Bryce Harper at first base during pregame drills.

“It’s a tough position,” Dickerson said. “It really is. There’s a lot of decision making. There’s a lot of things that go on over there. The only thing you don't have to do is throw to a base very often. And that's where people try to say it's an easier position to play. But the truth of the matter is, you’ve got to make decisions on what ball to go get, when to cover.

“That's why he's [+2] outs above average. He’s going to have more range than most people do. He goes to get balls, and he's aggressive over there. But I've told him since it started: ‘If you're serious about this, you damn sure can do it. You're talented enough.’”

After an intense workout with Harper one morning in San Francisco, Dickerson said that Harper could be a Gold Glove first baseman in the future.

He still believes that.

“There are going to be growing pains,” Dickerson said. “It’s about being patient. There are times he's not patient.

“We had a play the other day where Trea slid in the hole, threw the ball all the way in the air. It was an in-between hop. Bryce got indecisive, whether to go get the hop, drop step, whatever. He ended up blocking it.

“He came in mad at himself. That’s where I'm like, ‘Dude, there's some patience there. It’s not an easy play.’ He said, ‘I remember [Eric] Hosmer stepping back across the base like that or [Freddie] Freeman.’ He started naming different first basemen. I said, ‘What do they all have in common? They all played a long time there.’

“He’s going to get there. The fact that he was thinking it tells me he's going to get it. He’s aware of it. This guy is an MVP, and he's an MVP because he's a perfectionist. He's super talented, but he doesn't treat his game like he's super talented.

“He works at it. He doesn't take it for granted. He didn't show up and say I'm just going to be better than you. He’d be a solid Major Leaguer if he never ever, ever, ever practiced. But he works on his hitting. He works on his defense. He works. That's why he's an MVP, and that’s why I think he can win a Gold Glove.”

Nobody knows what will happen next year. Maybe the Phillies bring back Hoskins, which moves Harper back to the outfield. Maybe Hoskins moves on. But right now, Harper at first base is working well. It’s helping.

It all goes back to Harper’s idea in April, and Thomson and Dombrowski embracing it.

“They thought it was a good idea, and it’s just been working ever since,” Harper said.