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Saving Bryce Harper from himself: A position change reconsidered

06.22.13 at 1:10 am ET
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Bryce Harper acquainted himself with the right field fence in Dodger Stadium last month. (AP)

Bryce Harper acquainted himself with the right field fence in Dodger Stadium last month. (AP)

Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 – with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on twitter @gabekapler.

Late in spring training of 2001 in Port Charlotte, Florida, I hit a routine ground ball to the shortstop and sprinted down the first base line knowing with near 100 percent certainty that I would be out at first base. Nonetheless, I gave that 90-foot race to the bag my full effort.

It’s the way I was taught to play the game and the only style that would allow me to lay my head on the pillow that night, confident that I’d given the day everything. Alan Trammell once told me when we were together in Detroit to “play the game to not be embarrassed.” That advice always stuck with me.

As I approached the bag, I heard a distinct pop in my right quad, up near my hip flexor. It was the same quad that had landed me on the DL the previous year. I knew immediately that I wouldn’t break camp with the Rangers nor be in playing shape for a month or so.

After the game, Doug Melvin, then the GM of the Rangers, approached me. In his fatherly deep voice, with a distinct Canadian drawl and through his thick mustache, he said, “Gabe, you’re going to need to understand better when to turn it down just a notch.”

He was likely nearly as frustrated as I was, given the fact that he was counting on me to be his everyday right fielder. Turn it down a notch? This was totally counter-intuitive to my makeup. I knew what he meant and yet he was the first person to give me this type of professional advice. All other baseball men had celebrated the “sacrifice your body to win” approach.

Although I knew in my heart that Doug was right, I threw the counsel immediately out the window. I rationalized that I wasn’t good enough to not bust my ass. I knew damn well I was accurate on that front.  If I wasn’t willing to run face first into a wall, somebody at the Triple-A level would, and I wouldn’t survive in this league.

On May 13 of this season, A.J. Ellis of the Dodgers crushed a ball to right field. Bryce Harper took an ill-advised route and accelerated toward the wall, attempting to use his plus speed to make up for running in a “U” pattern. As if the wall was closing in on him rather than the other way around, the two violently collided. Harper’s hips, shoulders and head came to a quick halt, his face taking the majority of the impact. A testament to his toughness and grit, he hobbled off the field utilizing his body’s own power.

In 1963, the Cincinnati Reds and the baseball world welcomed Pete Rose. Charlie Hustle inspired countless average youth baseball players like me to dive for everything, slide headfirst into every base, run over a catcher when applicable and never leave a field with a clean uniform.

Harper plays like Rose influenced him. With the highest degree of enthusiasm he took to twitter after sustaining his most recent injury to pronounce, I will keep playing this game hard for the rest of my life even if it kills me! Ill never stop! #RespectTheGame

There is no disputing that the harder and more physically he approaches the game, the less likely he is to stay healthy. Ask Harper; he’ll tell you the same. Nobody wants to watch him play the game at less than 100 percent.

What I’m fascinated by, however, is the impact the Nationals had by moving him off the catcher position and into the outfield. The Nats correctly assessed that more often than not, outfielders will see the field more times per week, thereby enabling them to be present in the lineup more frequently. The thought process was sound.

By making Harper an outfielder, they would be getting a true middle-of-the-order bat in the lineup everyday as opposed to, say, five or six days a week in the absolute best-case scenario (think Yadier Molina’s durability). They would be able to utilize his speed by avoiding the traditional wear and tear that catchers encounter. His legitimate plus arm in the outfield would scare off runners trying to take an extra base. And, theoretically, he would have a better shot at staying healthy, avoiding collisions, knee issues, thumb damage, etc.

For most guys, I can’t argue. Harper isn’t most guys.

After his latest explosive injury, the Nats must consider Harper’s unique makeup and style of play and reevaluate the decision to put him in the outfield. Is it worth considering that Harper, because he is who he is, will be the guy without the gear in the home plate collision? Isn’t it a whole lot less likely that Harper sustains a concussion if he doesn’t have the opportunity to collide with a wall or a teammate while tracking down a ball?

If the player making the position change is a graceful, fluid athlete — like, say, B.J. Upton — I’d be immediately convinced that a move to the outfield is what’s in his and the club’s long-term interest. You understand going in that the smooth, silky type of player will indeed “turn it down just a notch.”

But Bryce Harper is more like Ed Reed than B.J. Try telling Reed to take it easy on Hines Ward.

The Nats have to consider their current options and what they have coming, but without taking away anything from the other spices in the mix, I’ll bet on Harper’s athleticism to play and for him to become a better-than-average major league catcher and maybe the most potent offensive performer at that position of anyone in the league.

Since 2000, there have been 13 seasons of catchers playing in 150-plus games. Why can’t Harper — already one of the great outliers in baseball history based on his performance as a teenager and 20-year-old — be Jason Kendall with 80 power?

If the ultimate goal is to keep Harper healthy and in the lineup, then the most likely way to ensure that result is by moving him to first base. But why take an athletic guy like Harper and let him play the same the same position as Mo Vaughn?

This hypothetical is not as much about data as it is about baseball character.  There are very few superstars — if any — with Harper’s specific makeup, so the good comps that I’d normally try to hang my hat on don’t exist. That’s why I have the audacity to throw something like this out there. Baseball men have to rely on both data and their eyes. In this case, I’m leaning on the latter.

I feel like Harper’s father probably does. I just badly want him to stay healthy so we can watch a historic career unfold. Most fans share the same emotion. The guy is simply electric.

Most baseball scouts agree on one of two scenarios. Harper stays healthy consistently and becomes one of the greatest players of our generation or he lands on the DL frequently and is just very good. It seems like a legacy hangs in the balance and the Nats are in a unique position to alter the course of a potential Hall of Fame career.

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