Bryce Harper’s 3-HR Game a Sign of Things to Come?

The Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper put up quite a bit of dingerage against the Miami Marlins this afternoon. Nearly a quarter mile of dingerage to be exact, with the 22-year-old outfielder taking Tom Koehler deep three times to the tune of 393, 442, and 445 feet in his first three at-bats in this afternoon’s 7-5 Nationals win over the Miami Marlins.

Not 1.

Not 2.

But 3.

That makes Harper the youngest player since Joe Lahoud did it for the Red Sox in 1969. Harper now has 63 career home runs, which gives him only two less than Lahoud had in his entire 11-year career.

Harper has been voted the most overrated player in the game of baseball by his peers each of the past two seasons. If you want to call Harper overrated, let me be the first to tell you to put down your hater-ade and remind yourself that Harper is still only a 22-year old. Only Dilson Herrera and Addison Russell are younger than him in the National League. He still has not faced a pitcher younger than him for crying out loud.

The expectations heaped on Harper are probably what helped earn him that overrated label — millions of endorsement dollars before he even took a Major League at-bat probably don’t help either. Harper, however, is about to blow that overrated label out of the water, and today was just the beginning. Harper has reached an age when most 22-year-olds are wrapping up their final semester of college. In his fourth season in the Major Leagues, he appears to be making some massive strides as a hitter this season. Harper’s power was always evident, but it has taken him some time to adjust to big league pitching.

Harper currently leads the Majors in walks, with 26. That alone speaks to the improved plate discipline Harper is exhibiting this season, but there is much more information to support this hypothesis. Before the 2015 season, Bryce Harper had swung at over 30% of pitches outside the strike zone each season. Pitchers exploited his eagerness at the plate, and nibbled at the edges of the strike zone. This season, Harper has swung at only 26.2% of pitches outside the strike zone. What’s more impressive to me, though, is the fact that he has also reduced the number of pitches inside the strike zone that he swings at. Harper has swung at only 43.6% of pitches in the strike zone this season, after swinging at over 50% of them last year.

Not all strikes are created equal, and by being more selective at the plate, Harper is forcing pitchers to give in to him at the plate. His batted ball ratios now reflect a batter who is getting and swinging at hitters’ pitches. In the first three seasons of his career, Harper’s GB/FB ratios were 1.35, 1.40, and 1.26. This season, that number is 0.92. His line drive rates have stayed relatively consistent. As Harper refines his approach at the plate, the groundballs are turning into fly balls.

Pitchers like ground balls. They almost never leave the yard. Pitchers hate fly balls. Big, strong hitters like Bryce Harper turn fly balls into extra base hits.

For a hitter like Harper, who can only be described as having “light tower power,” hitting more fly balls is a good sign. So is pulling the ball more frequently. Harper has pulled the ball over 50% of the time this season. Thirty-two percent of Harper’s fly balls have gone for home runs this season. As Harper reins in his approach at the plate, he has increased the likelihood that he will actually hit the ball hard somewhere. It’s really not that hard to explain — get into a hitter’s count, lift the ball, and watch it fly.

Harper had a month like this before — April 2013, .344 BA, 9 HR, 1.150 OPS — but that month was cut short when Harper crashed into a wall and short circuited his season. Even without the collision, Harper’s numbers likely would have come back down to Earth that season, as he was still swinging at 33.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, and hitting the ball on the ground 50.0% of the time. His home runs were flukey that April.

Now, in 2015, as Harper gets smarter at the plate, the home runs are not a fluke. Bryce Harper is currently on pace for 45 home runs. While his pace may cool slightly, there is every indication that Harper has finally developed a Major League approach to hitting, and will be able to sustain this hot early season home run pace. It may finally be time to retire the “overrated” label for Bryce Harper, just as he comes of age as a Major Leaguer.

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