While making my afternoon commute home from work Monday, I caught the tail end of a debate on MLB Network Radio’s Inside Pitch over who should win the National League MVP. Both hosts, Casey Stern and Jim Bowden, went with Bryce Harper narrowly edging out Paul Goldschmidt. While Bowden, the former Washington Nationals general manager, wrapped up his case for Harper, he offered an interesting hot take. According to Bowden, Harper’s performance this year is even more impressive due to the fact that umpires around the league have it out for Harper. Bowden stated that Harper gets at least one bad strike called against him every game.
That’s quite a claim to make. Bowden didn’t say much else to back it up, and the discussion changed course after the MVP debate was settled. It certainly seems plausible that baseball’s umpires could have it out for Harper, but with the league officers watching and handing out grades and postseason assignments based on performance, would they really risk their reputations just to put a 22-year-old phenom in his place?
In his career, Harper has been ejected six times, most frequently for arguing balls and strikes. He was ejected earlier this season for taking too long to get back into the box between pitches. Harper got the thumb most recently in the 11th inning on August 1st after Jerry Meals called him out on a pitch that was, in all fairness, several inches off the plate. Meals, though, is a veteran umpire who has worked seven Division Series, an NLCS, two All-Star Games, and was the home plate umpire for Game One of the World Series last year. It’s hard to imagine an umpire with that type of resume taking a chance to go after Harper in the middle of a tie game.
That pitch was clearly a ball, but baseball’s umpires rarely accept a player arguing balls and strikes. They certainly don’t have much tolerance for a player screaming in their faces and gesticulating with a bat. Harper’s actions will not make him any friends in the umpiring community, but do they really hold it against him?
In 2015, Bryce Harper has improved his plate discipline substantially. This year, he has chased only 28.9% of pitches outside the strike zone. Harper has also been very aggressive on pitches in the strike zone, swinging at 69.9% of pitches that catch the plate. Honing his grasp on the strike zone has led to Harper nearly doubling his walk rate, and finally beginning to harness the raw power he has showed since his teen years.
So far this year, Harper has seen 1,083 strikes. He has swung at 80.4% of them, nearly eight percent higher than the league average. It’s obvious if Bryce thinks a pitch is a strike, he’s going to get his rips in. Of the 95 strikeouts Harper has recorded this year, only 21 have been of the caught looking variety. The 21 backwards K’s in the book for Harper represents a lower percentage — 21.9% — of his strikeouts than the 22.1% percent of looking strikeouts Harper recorded in 2014. In general, umpires around the league are less likely to give a borderline strike in a two-strike count.
With some groundwork laid, let’s begin looking at some actual pitch data for Bryce Harper this year and see if umpires really do have it out for him.
For starters, it is important to note how pitchers have been attacking Harper this year. No one wants to come anywhere near the inside half of the plate against him. That’s a recipe for disaster. Take a look at this view, from a catcher’s perspective of how Harper has been pitched this year.
The pitch off the plate that triggered Harper’s last ejection was off the plate, but Hansel Robles hit the glove of his catcher, Travis d’Arnaud. When a catcher is set up outside, and the pitcher hits the glove, he has a better than average chance of getting a called strike, even if the catcher is set up ever so slightly off the plate. That’s just part of the unavoidable human nature that comes with having an umpire try and determine the exact location of a tiny white sphere travelling 90-plus miles per hour. Had d’Arnaud been set up towards the inner half of the plate, the pitch that set Harper off would likely have been called a ball.
After facing Zack Greinke in late July and going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, Harper was pretty salty after the game, stating that, “For me, I don’t think he was very tough. He’s a great pitcher, he does what he does, but when you’re getting six inches off the plate it’s pretty tough to face him.”
Greinke strikes out Harper 20 seconds into the video below on a pitch that may have been slightly inside, but he did hit the glove. Greinke gets Harper again at the 1:35 mark, this time swinging.
With pitchers targeting Harper away, it would seemingly make sense for him to see more called strikes just off the edge of the outside corner, and that is exactly what the Pitch f/x data shows. Of the 221 called strikes Harper has taken this year, 26 have been called strikes off the outer edge. Eight have been called strikes despite being low. Overall, Harper has seen roughly 10% of strike calls go against him. That hardly seems like the umpires are after him. Furthermore, the higher percentage of strikes called off the plate rather than below the knees supports the notion that if Harper does get a bad strike call, it is likely due to the pitcher hitting his spot correctly.
While Pitch f/x data is far from perfect when evaluating the strike zone — it really is impossible to boil a dynamic, moving target down to a 10 x 10 grid — it is the best we have to work with at this time.
After looking at the pitch data on Harper, which does not suggest he is being unfairly targeted, I went a step further and compared him to two of the most well-liked players in the game — Mike Trout and Goldschmidt. Trout and Goldschmidt could very well be the two league MVP’s this year, and both see pitches out of the strike zone called against them. In fact, it seems as if Harper actually gets off easier than both. Harper has a significantly higher percentage of pitches that actually catch the inside corner of the plate called balls. This is likely due to the way he dives into the strike zone or the fact that most pitches on the inner half of the plate to him were not meant to end up there. Harper has had 75.8% of pitches that registered as “strikes” actually called a strike. For Goldschmidt and Trout, that figure is 82.1% and 81.3%, respectively. If Harper is being worked by the umpires, it certainly doesn’t show up in the data. Goldschmidt has seen 23 poor strike calls, while Trout has seen 35. Harper’s seem more egregious because he has seen fewer pitches overall, but in some ways he has benefitted by missed calls that go his way.
The final conclusion is that while it seems plausible for baseball’s umpires to want to attack Bryce Harper, there is no such thing going on. He is certainly not seeing a pitch a game go against him any more than the average player, although it may seem that way judging by his reactions. Perhaps an umpire or two has given a pitcher the benefit of the doubt on a pitch away just because Harper is Harper, but it is certainly not a leaguewide trend.
Every hitter in the game, even two of the nicest — Trout and Goldschmidt — have strikes called against them that did not catch all of the plate. That will be a part of the game so long as the human element exists in the game’s officiating. Bryce Harper has done a lot of growing up this year, but there are still some rough edges to be smoothed out, especially when it comes to dealing with the man in the mask. Whether or not he’s shown up an umpire on more than one occasion, they are continuing to treat him fairly. It’s easy to accept the narrative that the entire league has it out for Harper, including the umpires, but it just isn’t true.