How Bryce Harper defied every expectation to make Philadelphia Phillies return
Midway through spring training, Bryce Harper paused in front of his locker in the Philadelphia Phillies‘ clubhouse in Clearwater, Florida, and discussed his rehabilitation from an elbow reconstruction. Harper nodded his head as a reporter mentioned the haunting tales of players who pushed beyond the recommendation of their doctors and suffered setbacks, lengthening the time for their respective recoveries from Tommy John surgery. Harper had heard some of those stories and recognized the potential pitfalls, and he said he was carefully following the advice of doctors and trainers.
But all the while, Harper had a goal for his return date, as he mentioned to reporters Monday, shortly before he was cleared to return to action by the doctor who performed his surgery, Neal ElAttrache. His hope was that he would be back in the Phillies’ lineup to play against the Los Angeles Dodgers, in L.A., in the first week of May. “I kind of looked at this series in the offseason, to put my head where I needed to be,” Harper said. “Understanding that I need to take it one day at a time, understanding that we can have setbacks even if you feel great. But I wanted … to work toward something.”
Harper’s vision quest will manifest later today, when, remarkably, he is expected back in the Phillies’ lineup just 160 days after his surgery. It’s believed to be the quickest recovery, by far, for a position player after an elbow reconstruction. He’ll initially serve as designated hitter in his first games back in action, but the Phillies are very comfortable with the idea of using him at first base in the weeks ahead.
David Dombrowski, the head of baseball operations for the Phillies, said over the phone Monday afternoon that Harper was “diligent” in following the directions of ElAttrache and the professionals who guided him through his rehabilitation. “He followed their protocol step by step, always made the medical checkups,” Dombrowski said. “He’s been fantastic in that regard.”
According to Jon Roegele’s database of players who’ve gone through Tommy John surgery, the previous quickest position player to return from the operation was former infielder Tony Womack, 182 days after the procedure. Jay Buhner returned after 207 days, and Carl Crawford, at 221 days, was the third quickest.
There’s an inherent temptation for an elite athlete, Crawford said in an interview, to believe that you are the exception to any rehabilitation timeline, and that you can push through faster than anybody else, that you can do more than what the doctors are telling you. That belief in self is part of what separated Crawford, a four-time All-Star outfielder, and what separates Harper, a two-time winner of the MVP Award.
“You just have to be careful, because you want to move it [quickly],” Crawford said. “Especially as a super athlete. But you can’t do that. You have to work with the doctors, doing all the exercises they give you. Whatever program they gave me, I stayed on top of it. I didn’t mess mine up, I didn’t have any setbacks.”
By all accounts, Harper was extremely disciplined through his rehabilitation, and along the way, neither did he. Initially, the expectation was that Harper would be out until sometime in midseason. At the time he had the surgery, some sources indicated that he might be back around the All-Star break; later, that became June. Dombrowski said the Phillies were still working on the timeline when Harper arrived in Florida, deferring to medical advice and guidelines. But shortly after Harper joined the Phillies in Clearwater, it seemed possible he might be back sooner than initially thought. “He was swinging so well, and he was not having any pain,” Dombrowski said. “We didn’t put any expectations on it … but we were optimistic. I can’t say we knew anything.”
Because of Harper’s progress, the Phillies made the decision on the eve of the regular season not to place him on the 60-day injured list, the first tangible sign that the team thought Harper might be back in May rather than June or July. Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, outlined in a text message why he thought Harper rebounded quickly. “Harp has genius healing factors, and his strength and bat speed are always MLB Centurion elite,” Boras wrote. “Skill and power wise, he is just far from normal.”
Harper loves to play, Boras wrote, and “he would crush his toothbrush every morning he couldn’t play. That boy’s desire to play ball is embodied in his player DNA.”
If his return to the lineup had been dependent on Harper returning to the outfield — as it was for Crawford — then Harper’s debut might have come later. During the spring, Harper began taking ground balls at first base, an idea that he first raised with Dombrowski after Rhys Hoskins suffered a season-ending knee injury March 23.
And even before that, the NL’s adoption of the designated hitter — a rule that Harper acknowledged last year he had never really liked — has streamlined the preparation for his return. “The hitting process doesn’t require an overhand motion,” Boras said, “so he was able to swing just months after the process.”
After Harper went through simulated game action as a hitter Sunday in Houston, he deftly fielded grounders hit by infield coach Bobby Dickerson, with Dickerson reminding Harper a couple of times to keep his glove and attack the ball out in front of him. Some of the team staffers believe Harper has the instincts to excel in the infield, because of his history as an amateur catcher and his sense of timing. When Dombrowski asked Dickerson last month whether Harper could play first, Dickerson was quick in his response: Yes, he could. “When?” Dombrowski asked.
“Right now,” Dickerson replied.
Some of the throws Harper will make at first base could be made from angles different from those he has made as an outfielder — like trying to throw over the head of a would-be base-stealer to the second baseman, or charging a bunt and throwing to third. But Harper will not often be involved in plays that would require throwing as hard as he is used to — or as far — because of the nature of the position. Outfielders are sometimes clocked making throws over 90 mph, but so far this year, according to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, there have been only 10 throws of 80+ mph this season by all first basemen combined.
Rival evaluators note that Harper has a complicated swing, and in his career, he has worked through extended slumps. While the Phillies have transported minor league pitchers to work in simulated games with Harper, and though he has looked comfortable in his swings, it might take him a while to regain his timing. Harper suffered a broken thumb last June when he was hit by a pitch from San Diego Padres lefty Blake Snell, and after he returned Aug. 26, he batted .227 in his last 35 games in the regular season, with a .325 on-base percentage and just three homers.
But in the postseason, Harper regained his swing, blasting six homers in 17 games, including the memorable eighth-inning shot against the Padres that effectively launched the Phillies into the World Series.
Even then, there was concern within the Phillies’ organization that Harper would need elbow surgery and the team would lose him for most of 2023. Instead, after a historic recovery, he’s repaired, rehabbed and already ready to go.