“The most exciting prodigy since LeBron.”
Six words in the May 2009 Sports Illustrated magazine placed a heavy burden on a 16-year-old from Nevada. Scouts, journalists, and baseball fans compared him to Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Justin Upton. Harper was so hyped that he skipped the last two years of high school to expedite his path to MLB. At 17 years old, he enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada, where he hit 31 home runs and 98 RBI with a .443/.526/.987 slash line in just 66 games. To put his college stats in perspective, Southern Nevada allowed 28 home runs all season.
Harper’s legend grew as the 2010 amateur draft neared. In the 2010 NJCAA district final, he went 6-for-7 and hit for the cycle. The next day, he hit 8-for-11 with four home runs, two doubles, and a triple in a doubleheader. Despite his on-field performance, a two-game suspension ended his career after he argued a strike three call by drawing a line in the dirt with his bat. Skeptical fans called him immature. A disgrace to baseball. Traditionalists didn’t like his eye black, hair style, and showy bat flips.
The suspension didn’t hurt Harper in the eyes of MLB executives as the Nationals drafted Harper in the 2010 draft at number one overall. They moved him from catcher to outfield to speed up his development and make room for the highly touted Wilson Ramos. The move allowed Harper to follow in the footsteps of his baseball hero, Mickey Mantle. In his youth baseball career, Harper wore number seven to honor Mantle, but the number was not available with the Nationals. Harper chose 34 because three plus four equals seven.
To no one’s surprise, Harper hit .389 in Spring Training with three doubles and five RBI. However, he had a slow start in the minor leagues at Hagerstown in Class-A. Harper saw an optometrist who said he had some of the worst eyes that he had ever seen. Once Harper started wearing contact lenses, he smashed seven home runs with ten doubles and a .480 average in 20 games.
Harper slugged his way through the minor leagues and earned a spot in the big leagues in 2012 at 19 years old. In his rookie season, Harper hit 22 home runs with 59 RBI and collected the Rookie of the Year award. He posted similar numbers in 2013, but slumped last year while suffering a thumb injury. To make matters worse for Bryce, controversy with Nationals’ manager Matt Williams fueled his critics. In mid-April of 2014, Williams benched Harper for “lack of hustle” when he jogged to first base before making a turn for the dugout on a routine ground ball. The play was odd because Harper usually plays the game with intensity.
As Harper battled injuries and matured in the big leagues, phenoms like Mike Trout, Jose Fernandez, and Kris Bryant burst onto the scene, prompting baseball fans to doubt Harper’s future stardom. Fans expected Harper to be a 20-year-old superstar and were impatient with his development. To this day, many seem to forget that Harper is still the fourth youngest player in the Major Leagues. Despite his ‘slow’ start, his stats were comparable to a young Barry Bonds through 386 games according to Ace of MLB Stats on Twitter and Baseball Reference.
— Ace of MLB Stats (@AceballStats) May 6, 2015
In the past few weeks, fans have finally gotten what they have waited for since Harper’s appearance on the Sports Illustrated cover six years ago. From May 6 to May 9, he hit six home runs with 12 RBI in 12 at-bats. He leads the National League in home runs at 11 and is third in RBI with 28. Through 32 games, he is hitting .300/.435/.655 and leads the majors in walks at 27.
How has Harper made the transition from disappointing phenom to blooming superstar? It is easiest to look at his patience at the plate. According to Fan Graphs, he is swinging at 30.1% of pitches outside the strike zone so far this season, good for four points less than his previous career low. His swinging strike percentage has dipped to 9.5% from 13.7% in 2014, proving that Harper is swinging at better pitches and putting more hard hit balls in play. Not surprisingly, the first time that Miguel Cabrera‘s swinging strike percentage dropped below 10%, he hit 33 home runs with 116 RBI and a .323 in his breakout 2005 season.
Greater selectivity at the plate has given Harper a much more balanced swing, allowing him to pull more balls in the gap at Nationals Park. Check out his progress in his batted ball stats according to Fan Graphs.[table “” not found /]
In 2015, Harper is clearly lifting more balls in the air, with his ground ball percentage dropping 12 percent from last year. His pull percentage has risen to 47.9%, allowing him to drive more balls into the seats and improve his fly ball percentage to 43.1%, which is in the ballpark of other premier power hitters. The increased fly ball percentage will dramatically increase his home run and power numbers, but may cause his average to drop if he can’t keep his line drive percentage near 25%. The league batting average on fly balls and line drives in 2014 was .207 and .685, respectively.
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Because Harper is pulling more pitches and hitting more line drives, his hard hit ball percentage has increased over nine percent from 2014. Much of the percentage increase has come from his medium hit balls. Harper isn’t just making contact with more pitches, he’s driving pitches with more pop than ever before.
As he continues to improve, we will see more swings like this beauty. The legend of Bryce Harper is alive and well. Expect big things from him the rest of the year and beyond.