I'm seeing something a little disturbing in the reactionary media after the Nationals have lost two straight in the NLDS to the Cardinals. Major outlets are blaming Washington's struggles on Stephen Strasburg's shutdown last month and Nationals' rookie phenom Bryce Harper having a terrible series after three games. The Strasburg thing can be debated until death, but while the Nationals have gotten blown outt he last two games, it's not as if they've put a ton of runs on the board themselves. This leads everyone to Harper, as the most noticeable member of the Nationals offense. The 19-year old (who still won't turn 20 until next Tuesday) is having a bad series, and I don't think anyone would deny that. But is this really worth talking about?
Saying that Harper has struggled this postseason is probably an understatement. He's 1/15 in the three games Washington has played so far, striking out six times in the process. But to pin all of the blame on Harper for the Nationals' offensive struggles is ridiculous. Aside from Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman, no one is playing at a high level. Michael Morse is 3/12 without an extra base hit or a walk. Kurt Suzuki is 1/11. Danny Espinosa is 1/9 with five strikeouts. Adam LaRoche is 1/11, and his one hit is a home run that came with the Nationals trailing 7-2 on Sunday. Jayson Werth is getting paid an ungodly amount of money, and doesn't have an extra base hit while going 3/12. Harper has struggled, but he's sure as hell not the only player on the Nationals struggling in these playoffs. If Harper goes 1/3 with a walk and a homer today, his OPS will jump nearly 300 points in one game. That's right, this is an issue of small sample size, and people completely freaking out over three games despite the fact that variations like this are completely normal and expected.
But *why* is Harper struggling? It's been a long year for him. In 2010, the only pro ball he played was nine games in the AFL. Last season, he missed a good chunk of time in the second half of the year with a hamstring injury, and ended up playing in only 134 games at a much lower level, including a 25 game stint in the AFL. This year, Harper has played in 160 games (minors and majors), and now, has played in three playoff games to go along with that. He's just 19, and it's been a long year. This is a common reason for younger players struggling near the end of the year, and for as great as Harper is, he's not exempt from basic fatigue problems. They happen. It's not a big deal. And while the 19-year old did have an awesome September, it was fueled by a .370 BABIP that can result in a nice regression sooner rather than later…kind of what's happening right now.
I'm also not really sure why this is such a big deal. In Albert Pujols' first postseason in 2001 when he was a 21-year old, he had a .478 OPS in the Cardinals' five game NLDS loss to the Diamondbacks. At age 23 in the 1995 ALDS, Manny Ramirez went 0/12 for the Indians. David Ortiz putzed around with a terrible 2002 postseason with the Twins, and had just a .317 OPS in his first postseason series with the Red Sox in 2003. Hell, Joey Votto is *still* one of the best hitters in baseball, and his first postseason in 2010 saw him go just 1/10 against the Phillies as his Reds team was swept. Judging a player based on one playoff series, let alone their first playoff series (especially as a teenager), is an absolutely ridiculous idea.
Harper has had a big series. Big deal. If the Nationals end up getting eliminated tomorrow or Friday, it's not fair to solely blame Harper when there are plenty of other factors for Washington's playoff struggles this season.