Bryce Harper is Back and Coming for the National League

Finding out how the former MVP is partying like it's 2015.

Earlier this week, Sheryl Ring wrote an excellent article explaining why Chris Russo needs to leave MLB Network. Russo’s patently absurd and poorly-veiled race-baiting comments about Fernando Tatis Jr. aren’t the first time in recent months that he’s gone on a somewhat deranged rant about the players he’s supposed to be promoting. Why am I talking about this? Because on the heels of an excellent, if somehow disappointing, 125 wRC+ campaign in 2019, Russo recently came to express the loud opinion that Bryce Harper should stop talking because he “stinks.” Now Russo in the news again for all the wrong reasons, while Harper does everything asked of him at the plate and more. One should stop to ask: why are we asking this guy for his opinion again, much less giving him a show on the league’s flagship station?

These are incredibly dumb hills to die on, because we all know that Bryce Harper absolutely does not “stink,” and, as you’re probably aware, Harper is in the midst of his best season since taking home NL MVP honors in 2015. In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, this probably isn’t the first time you’re reading about Bryce Harper this week! The erstwhile phenom truly is partying like it’s 2015 again, posting a .320/.453/.667 slash line along with a 193 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR at the midway point of this bizarre, unnecessary season. It’s been enough to draw the attention of Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus as well as Mike Petriello of MLB.com, both of whom published thoughtful analyses of Harper as this piece was in the works last week. So truthfully, there isn’t much to go too deep into that the two of them haven’t already covered.

Trueblood and Petriello cover their bases well, but while their observation form just the slightest Venn diagram, they mostly cover different aspects of the numerous adjustments Harper’s made. But no part of hitting is completely independent of the others; rather than eschew this article entirely, I thought I might fill in the gaps between the two analysts and attempt to synthesize it into a more complete understanding of the new Bryce Harper.


New Year, New Approach


Harper’s offensive production has actually cooled a bit since those two pieces were published, but Trueblood, Petriello, and myself were all initially drawn to the same outlier: a 17.7% strikeout rate entering Monday that would be the best of his career by a considerable margin. It’s the first time since 2016 that he’s struck out in less than 20% of his plate appearances. This seems noteworthy, as both authors point out to us that Harper’s strikeout rate has been on a steep, worrisome incline since that 2016 season:

Source: Fangraphs

Well, there’s your story! What’s the explanation? Petriello goes through most of the relevant variables (exit velocity, quality of contact, etc.), but the most basic reasoning comes from Trueblood, who gives us a fantastic mechanical breakdown of Harper’s base swing, as well as the adjustments he’s made to it. Chiefly, those are a flattening of his bat prior to rotation that’s allowing him to better get on plane with the ball, and an eye-catching reduction in his leg kick with two strikes. He also notes distinct changes to Harper’s approach, namely an increased aggressiveness attacking the first pitch—his first-pitch swing rate has spiked from 29.2% in 2016 to a career-high 49.5% now — and a newfound proclivity for contact on two strikes, dropping his whiff rate in those counts by more than 12%.

Petriello also takes heed of Harper’s aggressiveness on the first pitch, but he’s more concerned with the way that pitchers suddenly can’t get a breaking ball past Harper. We’ll go into that first. His whiff rate on breaking balls has plummeted from a brutal 49.5% (!) in 2019 to a perfectly fine 31% in 2020. This too, though, is a matter of plate discipline. I’ll let Petriello himself describe it best:

These numbers might jump off the page: In 2019, Harper offered at 70% of breaking balls in the zone, and 35% of them outside the zone. This year? That’s 85% in the zone and just 25% of the ones outside the zone. Given that it’s a lot easier to make contact on a breaking pitch in the zone than on one in the dirt, it shouldn’t be surprising to see the chart we offered above — that his swing-and-miss rate on breaking balls has fallen from 50% to 30%.

This all goes back to the “book” we just referenced — by being more aggressive early, and making better decisions on which breakers to go after, he’s helping himself avoid the situations that were most dangerous to him, which is how he’s making all this extra contact.

Swinging at more pitches in the zone and fewer out of the zone is a surefire way to cut some fat off the ol’ strikeout rate. But Petriello actually undersells the improvements in Harper’s contact ability as identified by Trueblood. It’s not just that Harper is swinging at better pitches overall, he’s undoubtedly gotten better at simply getting the bat on them:

Bryce Harper vs. Breaking Balls 2017-2020

Source: Baseball Savant

That’s a pretty big flip of the switch! Harper’s bona fides as a pure hitter need no introduction by now, and it should be obvious that trading whiffs for contact, perhaps at the expense of a little power (his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are both at four-year lows, but there are a host of other reasons for another article that these metrics can be highly misleading), is a no-brainer for a hitter of his caliber. Still, much of it is likely prone to regress; he’s undoubtedly in a period of seeing the ball (recognizing pitches) extraordinarily well. As any hitter will tell you, that can never last, but the adjustments Harper made are plenty sustainable and may drive a much more palatable plate discipline profile moving forward. Let’s see what some of this looks like in action.


Bryce Harper as Seen By Rick Porcello’s Curveball


Rick Porcello is not the kind of pitcher you’d think would give Bryce Harper a lot trouble. There was a time when Porcello did give a lot of hitters trouble. Though we’d all like to neuralyze that 2016 Cy Young Award from the deepest recesses of our memory, he was nonetheless very good. That time, however, has long passed. Now anchoring the rotation for the most humorously dysfunctional team in baseball (to the extent that such dysfunction can be humorous at the juncture at which MLB is putting hundreds of lives at risk), Porcello throws all of his pitches with subpar velocity, okay movement, and command not quite good enough to get away with the first two. Run prevention has not been his strong suit for several years now.

Rick Porcello, therefore, is not the kind of pitcher you’d expect to give Bryce Harper trouble. I regret to inform you that is not the case. Cover your eyes, kids! Remarkable in their similarity, none of these three regrettable swings occurred in the same plate appearance:


Capital-Y Yikes™. Rick Porcello’s curveball is not a good pitch. It’s been years since it even sniffed a league-average whiff rate, and even in its heyday it never got too many swings and misses. Incredibly, Harper whiffed on Porcello’s curveball five separate times last season. Dating all the way back to 2015, the only other hitter to whiff more than three times at Rick’s Uncle Charlie is CJ Cron, and he’s had 23 plate appearances to do it. Those swings are not pretty, and that is not a good look.

Good thing Rick Porcello is pitching in the NL East! We have a 2020 frame of reference — he even had the good fortune of being matched up with Harper again just last week. He threw Harper three curves, garnering a whiff on neither of the two pitches that were swung at. Any cherry-picked swing is going to have its counterpoints, but the difference between this and the abominations we see above is pretty stark:

To be fair, that curveball looks a good deal flatter than it was in Boston, but that’s partially due to some camera angle trickery. Whether he hung it a few inches higher or not, the difference is more in Harper’s process than Porcello’s. We see the reduction from leg-lift to pivot/toe tap identified by Trueblood, and we can also see the increased bat control that comes from the more even weight distribution and top-hand control. In those earlier whiffs, he’s essentially shooting darts with his bat path, but against an elevated breaking ball in 2020, he keeps the barrel in the zone for as long as possible and does a much better job of getting the bat on-line with the pitch’s flight path. As a result, despite still being a bit out in front and catching it off the end of the bat, he still manages to square it up enough to punch it into the outfield for a hit. It’s not sexy, but it definitely works!


Two Strikes? In This Economy?


That’s the two-strike approach that’s helping him out so much, but there’s a little bit more happening than being aggressive at the start of an at-bat and shortening up at the end of it. Both Petriello and Trueblood emphasize that in terms of approach, Harper is maximizing his strengths and mitigating his weaknesses. This idea is expressing itself in some pretty interesting changes in swing rate in counts beyond the first pitch:

Bryce Harper Swing Rate By Count

Source: Baseball Savant

We know that Harper is going after the first pitch way more than he typically has, but we haven’t talked about how he’s proceeded to let the second pitch of the at-bat fly by at a monumentally higher rate than he did last season. That’s the choosiness Petriello discusses with regards to breaking balls, expanded to the entire hitter-pitcher battle. Pitchers are getting to 0-1 counts more than in the past, and they’ve responded by throwing it out of the zone way more on the second pitch of the at-bat:

0-1 & 1-0 Count Zone Percentage

Source: Baseball Savant

Harper’s success in 2020 to this point has been at least somewhat derived from being able to discern the good from the bad on a 1-0 or 1-0 count. It’s intuitive for a dangerous hitter to be more inclined to take on 1-0, but the ability to consistently go after good 0-1 pitches and leave the bad ones? That’s the thread holding this all together for Harper. Without it, it would be impossible to see such a huge increase in first-pitch aggressiveness without suffering consequences later in the count.

Which is what makes the rate at which Harper is avoiding two-strike counts even more remarkable.  Trueblood notes that Harper has seen two-strike counts at a nearly league-low clip, and in the spirit of his observes mechanical changes, discusses his plummeting whiff rate and skyrocketing OPS when he does have two on him. These are improvements Petriello attributes to choosing better pitches to swing at; whatever the reasons, Harper has done his best to spend a lot less time hitting with his back against the wall, and in the process, he’s eliminating many of his worst plate appearances:

Bryce Harper With Two Strikes

Source: Baseball Savant

Theories like this can lead to some super misleading assumptions. Don’t get it twisted: a hitter isn’t helping themselves out if they avoid two strikes just by putting the bat on everything in sight. Swinging for the sake of swinging rarely begets positive outcomes. Harper’s increased aggressiveness on the first pitch is immediately visible, but we know now that locking in a superb batting eye with one strike is just as critical for avoiding the dreaded 0-2 or 1-2 hole as putting the ball in play. There’s always going to be some luck involved when a hitter puts up a 200 wRC+ for any stretch, but there’s clearly a method behind the madness here.

It’s not likely that Harper maintains that level of production with two strikes, because hitting with two strikes is always a dicey proposition. Even in his worst spots, Harper is way better than most; the league average slash line on two strikes this season is .171/.250/.281. But it’s feasible that he can continue to prevent himself from getting there at a roughly 10% better rate than he was before. In 2018 or 2019, that would have worked out to about 70 plate appearances in which he would have been closer to a 4-digit OPS hitter than the roughly .580 OPS hitter he actually was. That’s a LOT of plate appearances! As we’re seeing, over the course of a full season, those individual swings add up to something that can be the difference between a “disappointing” (by whatever standards Chris Russo claims to have) 125 wRC+, and the MVP-caliber campaign he’s putting together now.


Hit Smarter, Not Harder


Before we go, I want to look at a few more GIFs. Two of them involve Rick Porcello, I’m sorry to say. The first is to illustrate how Harper is still far from perfect, but also how the tiniest adjustments can lead to radically different outcomes:


That’s what you call a daddy-hack. Harper still has a good amount of whiff in his game, and he should probably be better at squaring up 75 MPH curveballs. But we also see the difference that just a tiny bit of contact makes. Just as easily as one might judge that positive outcomes on those kinds of hits are never more than flukes, one might also say that by putting the bat on the ball where there usually would’ve been air is a tremendous success solely by virtue of giving himself the opportunity for a positive outcome. And of course, for every hit like that, there’s an out like this:


According to Baseball Savant’s super-cool field visualizer, 87.7% of balls in play like that one — 107 MPH exit velocity, 33-degree launch angle — were home runs. And both of those happened in consecutive at-bats! Funny how it works, isn’t it? One swing that contradicts the new Bryce, and one that embodies it. Throw that in with his punchy single to right field earlier, and we have three at bats, three swings on breaking balls in the zone, a single two-strike count, and not a strikeout or whiff in sight.

Living with a lot of swing-and-miss in exchange for power is all the rage these days, but like everything in life, there’s a give and take to it, and a time and a place to act counterintuitively. On that note, I promise, this is our last GIF of the day:


That’s Harper taking a well-placed backdoor breaker from Mark Melancon out to left field for a game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth inning. Notice the quiet load and lack of a leg kick, despite it being less than two strikes. Still, Harper is down in the count 0-1, and with one out and the tying run on third, a strikeout would have been catastrophic.

By just about any standard, Melancon makes an excellent pitch, hitting the catcher’s spot perfectly with a knuckle-curve that only enters the zone at the last possible minute. Yet Harper manages to bear down and put a controlled swing on the ball, just enough to ensure contact while still putting enough gusto into it to get the ball deep enough to score the game-tying run. That’s not just a hitter making adjustments, that’s a mature hitting stepping up and making the right adjustment when the situation calls for it. That’s not something that can be learned in an instant, and it’s not something that suddenly goes away. He’ll be well-challenged to maintain his pace throughout the rest of this small sample size heaven of a season. But anyone who thought that Bryce Harper was ready to settle into any kind of overpaid slugger niche may want to think again.

Featured photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire

Zach Hayes

Zach is based in Chicago and contributes analysis and coverage for Pitcher List and South Side Sox. He also co-hosts the Shaggin' Flies podcast with Ben Palmer, and enjoys reading, Justin Fields highlights, and people-watching on the CTA.

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