This is the biggest season thus far in the young life of Bryce Harper. With a Washington Nationals club built for a World Series title and the potential for the biggest contract in the history of Major League Baseball surrounding him, the young outfielder has more to play for than ever before.
On its face, 2018 for Harper has been everything he could want. His power and plate discipline have been on full display, as has an inherent fear from opposing pitchers 60 feet and six inches away. Harper paces all National League hitters in home runs (19), walks (52), and intentional walks (eight).
So, the 2015 NL Most Valuable Player is having yet another MVP-caliber season, right? Well, Harper is hitting .212, has been worth just 0.5 bWAR, is on pace for a career high in strikeouts, and has played borderline terrible defense in right field (-5 defensive runs saved). Obviously, his value — and his possible $400 million contract — have taken a big hit, and though this solution can’t fix his woes in the outfield grass, it can assist mightily at the dish.
Harper is chasing too many pitches outside of the strike zone. There are perfectly reasonable and understandable causes for this, and we’ll examine them here.Bryce Harper is chasing too many pitches outside. The key for the @Nationals star to rebound, and rebuild his free agency stock, is to become a more disciplined batter.Click To Tweet
The simplest being: Bryce Harper is a youthful, extremely powerful left-handed hitter who has the skills to bash a home run ball on every pitch he sees, and he knows it, so all he wants to do is swing the bat and swing it hard. On account of this, it’s no coincidence that Harper leads the NL in bases on balls; pitchers can’t give him anything over the plate.
A more complicated one: pitchers have found how to exploit Harper’s aggression at the plate. The 25-year-old has one hit in his last 29 plate appearances, so I could show you any Nationals condensed game on YouTube and get my point across. However, I’ll instead embed this clip from MLB Tonight, originally aired on Monday night. Just keep in mind that Harold Reynolds is in it (oh, so I can’t criticize Harold Reynolds? It’s my article and I’ll do what I want.)
If you watched the video in its entirety, you saw this clip, but if you didn’t, here’s this food for thought. Sonny Gray was the Yankees’ starter yesterday, and against the righty, Harper went 0-3. He saw ten total pitches from Gray in the game, with just one — not shown in the following picture, but a grounder to the shortstop for an easy out — fully in the strikezone.
Bryce Harper is being pitched to like Barry Bonds was pitched to, but Harper isn’t playing the Bonds game. Bonds laid back and got on base however he could, sacrificing power and home run totals and letting fear do the work for him. Harper is seeing next to nothing in terms of actual pitches to hit, and it’s clearly getting to him. He’s eager to put the bat to the ball regardless, and it’s impacting his performance heavily.
Harper’s goal is to help his team win and bolster his free agency stock, right? There’s no better way to do it than to stay patient and make yourself the most feared hitter in the lineup. Capitalize on the fact that not a single MLB hurler wants to throw fastballs inside the zone against you and prioritize getting on base.
Harper is a Joey Gallo-esque slugger before he’s a Joey Votto-esque walks machine, but to stay disciplined and take more walks — which, if every pitcher he sees throws to him the way Gray did above, would be an easy task — goes a long way in accomplishing both 1) being a more productive player for a team that sorely needs production and 2) fortifying your free agency stock.
According to FanGraphs, Harper is seeing just 37.7% of all pitches thrown to him inside the strike zone. If he sees six pitches in an at-bat (about the average duration of an at-bat), only roughly two of them are really going to be worth swinging at, which means he’s probably only getting a good pitch to hit six or seven times a game.
I hate to play the role of cleanup hitter with a laptop at my fingers and not a bat in my hands, but if Bryce Harper can become a more patient, acquiescent hitter then he’ll be back in the conversation of the game’s best players.