Bryce Harper worked a miracle in 2023.
When the Phillies strolled into Clearwater in late February last year, they did so with the knowledge they would be without Harper, their best player, for at least the first two months of the season. The most realistic timetable for Harper’s return from Tommy John surgery was the All Star break.
And that all made sense. Harper couldn’t throw a baseball from the outfield and, even as a designated hitter, Tommy John surgery routinely requires a few months for the elbow to heal long enough to swing a bat effectively. So fans approached the ‘23 season with the hope the team would be able to hang on, stay around .500 or so, and wait for the former MVP to return to the lineup sometime in mid-July.
Then, word started leaking out from the Phils that Harper was ahead of schedule. He was doing “dry swings” in April. He was in the batting cages months earlier than expected. Despite their initial, more conservative estimates, Harper seemed to be chugging along much quicker in his recovery from surgery.
Finally, shockingly, Harper returned to the lineup roughly three months earlier than anyone expected, making his season debut on May 2 against the Dodgers. And despite a slow start in which he endured a home run drought that stretched 38 games (May 26-July 15), Harper still finished the season as one of the game’s top offensive performers.
Not only that, he learned an entirely new position in the span of two months and proceeded to play it at a high level, all while rehabbing his elbow. You can probably count on one finger the number of players who could have pulled it off.
That one player plays for your Philadelphia Phillies.
2023 regular season stats: 126 G, .293/.401/.499 146 OPS+, 21 HRs, 72 RBIs, 11 SBs, 29 doubles, .900 OPS, 3.7 WAR
2023 postseason stats: 13G, .286/.455/.643, 1.098 OPS, 5 HRs, 8 RBIs, 13 BBs, 14 runs
Harper’s injured elbow certainly affected his swing through the first 2+ months of his return, but he continued to hit for a high average and get on base. He won his third Silver Slugger (second as a Phillie) and finished 12th in the MVP voting, and when he finally did get his groove back, he crushed high leverage home runs seemingly at will in the regular season, even if the bullpen did end up blowing those games in the end.
Against the Giants:
Harper also set a major milestone in dramatic fashion against the Angels:
And against the Braves in September:
Again, the Phillies lost those last two games, but still. Pretty awesome.
And then, of course, there was the Harper “Atta Boy” Game, Game 3 of the NLDS against Atlanta, coming off a stunning Game 2 loss in which an overaggressive Harper was thrown out at first on a double play to end the game.
It looked for all the world like the Phils were going to ride Harper through the NLCS and back to the World Series.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Like the rest of his teammates, Harper had no answers for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Games 6 or 7 at home, with the final at-bat of his season coming with two runners on and two out in the bottom of the 7th, trailing 4-2.
In 2022, Harper, in almost the exact same spot, gave the Phillies Bedlam at the Bank. In 2023, he was centimeters and hundredths of a second away from repeating that feat. Unfortunately, this time, he missed.
But despite that missed opportunity and his homer drought in the middle of the season, Harper’s “bad” moments were few and far between in 2023.
Harper still has eight years left on the 13-year deal he signed with the Phillies before the 2019 season and yet, his agent Scott Boras has given indications the team’s newly minted full-time first baseman wants to sign an extension that will keep him in Philadelphia through his early 40s at least.
Of course, that seems ludicrous to us right now, and doing so would almost certainly be an unwise decision from a baseball perspective, but keeping Harper happy during this World Series window may be of paramount importance. Regardless, he’s likely to be in Phillies pinstripes until he decides to stop wearing a baseball uniform.
And that’s great for Philadelphia. Harper has emerged as the city’s premier athlete, a consummate winner and face of the franchise. He will be the team’s every day first baseman moving forward, hitting at the top of the lineup, and one outlet already has predicted he’ll win his third MVP award this season.
We have our first set of predictions for 2024.— MLB (@MLB) January 3, 2024
Who do you think will take home the hardware? pic.twitter.com/VY5xMiJzwh
The Phils can only hope that will result in Harper and his teammates finally getting that parade down Broad Street they’ve been aching for.