CLEARWATER — Bryce Harper will get used to seeing a new set of shifts this spring, and not all of them on the field.
On Monday afternoon, as Harper made his first Grapefruit League start for the Phillies in right field, fans crowded the Spectrum Field berm area behind him — many of them already wearing his red No. 3 Phillies T-shirt jerseys — as part of a sellout standing-room only crowd of 9,848.
“To be able to come and play in front of a great fan base like this and for them to show up in spring training, it’s pretty cool to be with an organization that the fans show up to spring training every single year and root for us,” Harper said of the reception in an 8-2 loss to Tampa Bay.
Harper had just three balls hit his way in four innings in right field, making two fly-ball catches and playing Brandon Lowe’s double off the top of the wall in the second inning.
“Happy to be back out there, happy to get a couple balls my way and make a throw as well and get back out there,” Harper said.
Harper walked and struck out in two plate appearances, caught looking at a 96-mph fastball from Rays left-hander Blake Snell his first time up. The Rays employed a four-outfielder alignment against him.
Harper, who signed record 13-year, $330-million deal with the Phillies on March 2, said he’s focused on becoming a better defender. While he added that he’d play anywhere he’d needed, it was clear he’d prefer to stay in right.
“I know I was terrible last year in center field,” said Harper, who made 59 starts there last season, his first action at the position since 2015. “But it’s trying to get better. That’s it. Plain and simple. Not make overthrows and make the right decisions. ... When you’re letting runs in or anything like that, it’s going to hurt your team.”
The Phillies, who utilize data to a great extent, will give Harper some added information, like the index cards fielders get on where to position themselves.
Harper recorded minus-26 defensive runs saved in 2018 in the outfield, according to FanGraphs, by far the worst of his career. He previously never logged worse than a minus-3. Harper said he had too many overthrows and poor throwing decisions that allowed opponents extra bases.
“There will be times when I overthrow a guy or throw the ball to home plate instead of third base, so I can definitely get better at that. And just try to improve each day,” Harper said. “It was something where I need to go out there and work a little bit harder and do the things in the offseason I need to do, get my jumps right, throw to bags a little bit more and just do the little things that make you better each and every day.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.