The long and arduous road back from shoulder surgery tests the resolve of every player who goes under the knife. Brett Harper smashed his way to a career season in 2005 before a torn labrum sidelined him for virtually all of last year. After an intense summer and fall rehab on his shoulder, near his home in Arizona, Harper returned to spring training healthy and ready to pick up where he left off. He has fought off the disappointment of 2006, and most important, he is healthy.
“Obviously going down last year hurt, but I had a good spring and I feel a lot better. I rehabbed at the Desert Institute of Physical Therapy. Three days a week I was there to hit and throw. It was a fairly intense work. But being close to home certainly helped,” he said.
Given his large stature, he worked extremely hard on the strength and flexibility necessary to regain a fluid swing. The tentativeness that a player faces when fighting through rehabilitation can be his most significant enemy. He admitted he was hesitant when he first stepped back in the box to take full swings. He fought through pain and his own mind to recapture what he lost.
”Physically, it was surprising how much pain there was. I know it was a painful surgery but not being able to move my shoulder for so long was brutal. I just had to grind it out everyday in the summer. I did face the idea that it could never heal. But mentally, I just battled through it. I tried not to think about five months down the road,” he detailed.
Harper certainly fought like that heavyweight he is. After the long months of work, he arrived in Port St. Lucie geared up to show the coaches and the organization that his shoulder could handle a full load. Anxious to get his game back to where it was he jumped right into the box and let it rip.
“I went full blast with my hitting and I was very pleased with the way I swung the bat. I was doing things I did not think possible after such major surgery. The coaches did work with me on my mechanics though. After a surgery like that, it’s possible things can get thrown off a little. They worked with me on keeping my shoulders level and not dropping down and it paid off,” he said.
However, Harper did not see much time in the field. Coaches limited him to only a few appearances in the field. They restricted his throwing and ensured he did only enough to keep the arm healthy and in shape. However, he explained that regardless of the attention paid to his shoulder, he needed to iron out his approach at the plate.
”I struck out way too many times last year even with the home runs I hit. I’d like to cut down at least 40 or 50 strikeouts. If I could do one thing over, it would be that. I know my swing hasn’t changed because of the surgery. Hitting is like riding a bike. The swing came back after I shook off the initial nerves.
Although he posted 36 home runs, 102 RBI and hit near .275, he whiffed an astounding 149 times in 566 at-bats in 2005 between Port St. Lucie and Binghamton. The lack of contact wilted his on-base percentage which hovered around .340. If he can turn those strikeouts into positive production, he surely will see his overall numbers and stock rise. Like many power hitters, especially coming off the surgery, he must guard against reaching for pitches and becoming home run happy.
Harper mentioned how he combats such notions through diligent attention in each at-bat and restraint from the long ball, “I don’t think I could ever hit too many home runs, but I don’t set goals to my numbers. I like to get hits and never think about getting home runs. Every time at the plate, I just think about getting on base and the home runs just come,” he said.
He is filled with confidence after a strong spring. Returning from the injury and the succeeding surgery could rust a player with hopes of a seamless transition back to the diamond. Thanks to the accomplishments at camp, Harper has put such reservations behind him. He also spent many days close to Corey Coles who underwent labrum surgery last year. The two trained together and pushed each other to heal and get back as soon as possible.
”A bad or slow start was in the back of mind, but the way my spring went, and the strides I made, those thoughts quickly left. Again, fighting through the feelings of doubt about my future was tough, but I knew I’d get back. For now, I just want to go out there, have fun, play hard and the chips will fall,” he said.
With a rehabilitated shoulder and unflappable poise, Harper could make moves this season. All depends on the continued health of his shoulder and his ability to find the power stroke that made him flourish prior to the surgery.