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Bryce Harper is playing hurt, unless he’s not

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Wednesday’s Say Hey, Baseball sees a Harper injury controversy, the Cardinals core, and a question about Ben Cherington’s importance in 2016.

New York Mets v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

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There is no question that Bryce Harper has had a disappointing 2016 season. While he started hot, looking like he was even going to improve on last summer’s MVP campaign, things began slipping at the end of May, and haven’t stopped since. Harper has batted just .235/.343/.398 since May 23, when his OPS first dipped under 1.000, and Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci is once again claiming that it’s due to a shoulder injury that Harper is playing through. The Nationals’ general manager, Mike Rizzo, and manager, Dusty Baker, both deny that Harper is playing through any such pain, and Harper once again wouldn’t address the question. So, which is it?

It’s not like Harper’s play is some return to pre-2015 levels. His season line looks good, just not Harperian, as he has a 118 OPS+ on the year. The thing is, that’s powered by his first two months, and the talent he displayed in 2015 was never a secret: he was just 21-and-under prior to that. It’s also worth pointing out that, when Harper last performed at this level in 2014, he was not only 21 but also dealing with a thumb injury that resulted in mid-season surgery. The 2015 season was an example of Harper’s talent and his health coming together, so given the precipitous drop of 2016, it certainly feels like Verducci’s sources are the truthful ones here.

Harper isn’t striking out more. He’s not walking less. He’s just not driving the ball or hitting for the average that he was a year ago — his batting average on balls in play is over 100 points below 2015’s rate, and given the drop in power, that feels more like a result of his issue than the issue itself. If Harper isn’t driving the ball with the authority he showed in the past, it’s not just his homers that drop. That’s fewer singles over the heads of infielders, dropping in front of outfielders. It’s fewer doubles — Harper has 22 compared to last summer’s 38. It’s less of everything. Is it the shoulder? It’s hard to know for sure, but it certainly feels like there is something ailing Harper, keeping him from the season we now know he’s capable of. Over 100 points below 2015’s rate, and given the drop in power, it feels more likely the issue is an injury.