FOX Sports MLB Analyst
PHILADELPHIA — Another night of pandemonium at the center of the baseball universe.
You already know the story. The Philadelphia Phillies, a club that four months ago was knee-deep in quicksand, sinking deeper under the weight of $242 million worth of expectations, won a postseason baseball game. Again. Another magical night in a month full of them.
Bryce Harper hit a home run. So did four of his friends. Starting pitcher Ranger Suarez was brilliant. The 45,712 for the first World Series home game in Philadelphia since 2009 was predictably louder than a rock show. And just like that, the red-striped rock stars cruised to an emphatic 7-0 victory over the Astros. The Phillies are now two wins away from a very unlikely championship.
But this joyous journey, this electrifying October, almost didn’t happen. Another year, this whole beautiful blur would have been nothing more than a dream. And that’s because the biggest part of this team isn’t Zack Wheeler or Kyle Schwarber or JT Realmuto or even Harper, whose nightly feats of wonder continue to fall flat. No, you see, the whole thing… this *wild gesture* was only made possible by the adoption of the National League Designated Hitter, the true MVP of the 2022 Philadelphia Phillies.
Bryce Harper hits a two-run home run in the first inning
Bryce Harper hits a two-run home run to give the Philadelphia Phillies an early 2-0 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the World Series. They won 7-0.
In mid-April, Bryce Harper felt a twinge in his right elbow.
That’s not a good feeling for anyone, especially a ballplayer. Fortunately, the Phillies superstar could still swing a bat without too much discomfort. Throwing was something else.
As the team’s everyday right fielder, throwing a baseball with power and purpose was a key part of Harper’s daily responsibilities. And for the first time in his career, the man who once threw a blistering 96 mph as a 16-year-old couldn’t throw without significant pain in his dominant arm.
The short-term plan: Harper would rest his right arm, avoiding all pitches while continuing to hit in the middle of Philadelphia’s lineup at DH. The club would be re-evaluated in a few weeks. It all started on April 17, just nine games into the season. Then re-evaluation a fortnight later brought more sad news: Harper’s problem, initially diagnosed as a strain, was revealed to be a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament.
For pitchers, this is horrible news; Tommy John surgery, then 12-18 months of recovery. The timeline for hitters is less severe, somewhere in the 5-7 month range, but still disastrous enough to require months on the shelf and completely alter the trajectory of a season. Surgery on Harper’s broken elbow would mean the season was over, for him, and most likely for the Phillies as well.
But he could still hit like Bryce Harper, so they made him the DH. This kept his bat as a factor, which would have been impossible a year earlier.
As part of the new CBA agreed to in advance of March 2022, National League teams would, for the first time in history, have a designated hitter in the 2020 season with the blemish of COVID. After more than a century of NL pitchers stepping up to the plate to bat helplessly or to hit, they were finally able to spend their offensive innings elsewhere. Almost immediately, National League teams began rebuilding their rosters in the image of their Senior Circuit counterparts. Not everyone loved their new reality.
“Honestly, I’m not really a fan.” Nick Castellanos shared after Game 3. “What I loved most about the National League was the skill it took to manage and the strategic aspect that went into it. [the DH in the NL] it was very important to keep the purity of baseball alive”
The ironic part is that Castellanos, statistically considered an inferior outfielder (October heroine aside), has almost certainly earned another chunk of change this offseason just because of the DH. The Phillies dropped five years and $100 million on Castellanos in part because they planned to bring him and their recent free agent signing, Kyle Schwarber, through the designated hitter spot. Without the DH, the Phillies definitely don’t acquire both players, and may not acquire either.
“We probably wouldn’t have been able to sign both Schwarber and Castellanos.” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acknowledged as much on a recent episode of the Baseball Bar-B-Cast podcast. “There’s no way we would have done it because we didn’t have room to play both of them.”
Even with the arrival of the NL DH, plenty of jokes were made online about Philadelphia’s potentially abysmal outfield defense. What did they expect to happen? The club added two defensively limited hitters to an already defensively-inclined roster, with two days off. Even some of the Phillies players wondered where they would all line up on the field.
“When we both signed [Schwarber and Castellanos]” rookie shortstop Bryson Stott told FOX Sports. “Honestly, I thought we were going to play Bryce in center field. But then I was like ‘ehhh no. No way.'”
Stott is right. Harper didn’t play a single inning in center in ’21 and has just three starts as a Phillie. When he joined the organization before the 2019 season, Harper made it clear that he would like to avoid the pastures of center field if possible. John Fogerty, eat your heart out. As Stott, his spring training teammate and longtime friend, said: That would never happen.
Still, an unexpected positional uprooting came calling for the face of the Phillies. At first, the transition to DH was difficult for Harper, who started there only twice in his seven years in DC. And despite his mercurial defensive play, Harper has always prided himself on his play in the outfield since the Nats told him to put the catcher team aside. Maybe one day, in the twilight of his career, he’ll be forced into a more docile lifestyle, of course. But after turning 30 this October, Harper clearly wants to contribute on both sides of the ball and believes his former defensive responsibilities allowed him to maintain a better focus throughout the game.
“It’s been a blast for me.” Harper revealed in early May about his new role. “Just worrying about hitting all day, instead of going out there and playing both sides of the ball.”
At some point, things changed. Harper learned to see her situation as a blessing, not a curse. He leaned into his obsession with hitting and began focusing on his at-bats, often going over half-game video with Phils hitting coach Kevin Long. Whenever his spot in the order is up for grabs in the next inning, Harper heads to the underground batting cage to take some swings; a ritual that has continued even during these tense October games.
“Harp spends all day thinking about his ABs.” reserve infielder Nick Maton said.
“The fans believe in us and we believe in them.”
Phillies shortstop Bryce Harper is calling out the home fans for coming out after the game was postponed yesterday and says the team is driven by the fans’ belief in them.
When he’s on the bench, watching the Phillies on defense, Harper doesn’t let his attention wander. He is hardly ever on top, talking about it with his colleagues. His mind is on the game, on his next AB. One Phillie vaguely compared it to the laser-focused energy a starting pitcher brings to the dugout between innings.
“He knows he doesn’t have a choice right now,” Stott explained. “So you have to find a way to make it work. And it has.”
Whatever Harper is doing to stay locked up is obviously working. So far this postseason, he has hit .382/.414/.818 with six homers, a 1.232 OPS and more extra base hits than strikeouts. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive playoff performances in baseball history.
And it’s all thanks to DH.
Imagine if Harper’s exact injury had happened a year earlier, when the Phillies couldn’t have moved him to DH. He either plays through incredible discomfort or, more likely, has surgery in May and misses most of the season. Any Phillies fan who, like Castellanos, enjoyed the tactical intrigue of old National League baseball or enjoyed the silliness of the pitcher’s rare home run must have a different opinion now.
No DH? No Harper. Not Harper? There is no October Phillies magic. That means no “Dancing on My Own”; no celebratory cigarettes in the club; head Brandon Marsh hilariously wet; without sold-out agglomerations so loud that they register as seismic activity.
“Yes, the DH weather is just amazing.” secondary catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “Sounds like destiny to me.”
Jake Mintz, the stronger half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York City and therefore leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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