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Added weight, however, did not help Heyward. After hitting .277 with an .849 OPS as a 20-year-old in 2010, the 6'5" Braves outfielder bulked up from 240 pounds to 256. His average sunk to .227 and his OPS to .708 in '11. Last year he cut his weight to 235 and hit .269 while adding more than 100 points to his OPS (.814) in a bounce-back season. Heyward also spent the winter after his sophomore year retooling his swing because pitchers had discovered and exploited a weakness on the inside of the plate. "The main thing [in a sophomore season] is staying healthy and not trying to do too much," says Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "When you expand the strike zone, pitchers can take advantage of you. That was something [Harper] went through last year for a period. But as a young hitter gains experience, you see the improvement.
Similarly, last season was Hosmer's turn to learn why there are practical reasons for sophomore slumps. "The big difference is when you get called up to the big leagues, the league is trying to figure you out," says Hosmer, whose average plummeted from .293 in 2011 to .232. "In the minors they don't have as many resources—the video, scouting and all that. In the majors, after enough time, whatever you see that works against you, everybody will know."
Hosmer started his second year hitting .188 in April. Anxiety crept into his swing, causing him to "leak" forward—to start earlier so he wouldn't get beat with hard stuff. But cheating in that way left him vulnerable to breaking balls. He hit .218 in May. "I was trying to get it all back in one swing, instead of just letting it come to me," Hosmer says. "I went home after the season, got a house in South Florida, put a batting cage in the backyard and went out and hit every day with my brother, who I've been hitting with since I was five. I asked him if he saw something different. He looked at me and said, 'You're leaking out front a little bit.' I shortened my swing, concentrating on staying on my back foot and letting it come to me."
His advice for this year's sophomores? "Harper and Trout, those guys are gifted," says Hosmer, who, like those two, began his rookie year in the minors and so didn't endure the full grind of the major league schedule. "I don't think they'll miss a beat. The only thing I'd say about the second year is that you don't realize how long the season is. The key is to get off to a good start. That way it's almost like you're continuing the last season."
Harper has a word for this sophomore jinx talk.
"Stupid," he blurted out while leveling a tower of gourmet buttermilk pancakes at a New York City restaurant last month. Here's what he figures: He's had to make adjustments every year of his baseball life. Adjusting to a 90-foot diamond from a 60-foot diamond as a kid. Adjusting to playing varsity baseball at 14 against 18-year-olds. Adjusting to top junior college competition at age 16 after ditching high school following his sophomore season and getting his GED.
"It's totally different [in the majors], I understand that," he says. "But in my head it's not. You have to go into your second season saying, 'What more can I do?' You go into your third year, your fourth year saying, 'What more can I do?' So many guys with great careers did have great second years. And I had to make adjustments my whole first year. Every at bat you're making adjustments to a new pitch, a new pitcher.
"Sophomore slump? I was a sophomore in college and I raked. Why can't you rake in the big leagues?"
Harper is still a kid, and looks the part with a gray wool beanie pulled tight over his head and a casual gray sweater over a T-shirt. He's not exactly as underexposed as Kaline was in 1955, but in midtown Manhattan he can still dispose of the pancakes, which disappear like young elms through a woodchipper, without so much as a picture or autograph request. Stretched out in an upholstered booth, he gives the appearance of a muscular thoroughbred colt in a pen, the sinews within him fairly announcing the need to fire.
In his first at bat in the big leagues, Harper grounded back to Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley—as routine an out as can be made—but he sprinted to first as if his house were afire. Nobody since Pete Rose, one of his heroes and someone who played his last game six years before Harper was born, has run the bases with more overt passion than Harper. With his chest out, chin up, arms pumping and helmet ready to pop like a champagne cork, Harper is powered with visible fury. It's nothing pretty. It's an open display of powerful machinery, like some exotic sports car blasting around turns with its hood off. "I want people to know that wasn't a show," he says. "That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to frickin' run through a wall and bust my butt every day. I'm going to run as hard as I can, hit the ball as hard as I can and swing as hard as I can every time. It's something I've been doing my whole life."