I know what you thought. The date was May 14, 2017. Thirty-four games and 154 plate appearances into his season, Bryce Harper was on an unholy tear through the 2017 season. His slash line of .384/.500/.752 with 12 HRs wasn’t unbelievable. In fact, it was very believable if you were one of those people waiting for Harper to repeat his 2015 monster season. On that day, you sat back in your chair, blithely put your hands behind your head, started off into the distance, and smiled. Once again you, learned prognosticator of baseball, were right again. Bryce, without a doubt, was back.
That is, until he wasn’t.
Looked at through a long lens, Harper’s 2017 totals still sit at a robust .316/.426/.617 with 16 Hrs, good for a 165 wRC+ (meaning his batting has been 65% better than the average major leaguer). That’s not just good, that’s great. Maybe it wouldn’t get him his second MVP award in three years, but it certainly could solidify in the minds of the baseball world that Bryce was once again, and maybe for good, Mr. Harper.
Yet, if you draw an imaginary line in the sand on the 14th of May where you, learned fan, are smugly sitting in your recliner, Harper would have been sitting not at a great 165 wRC+, but at a Ruthian 218 wRC+. That’s not the issue, though; the issue is what has happened since you paused to take your mental victory lap. In the 22 games and 95 (as of the start of the Nationals game on the 12th of June) plate appearances since, Harper has stumbled to a .220/.316/.427 batting line, which would put him at a 84 wRC+ for that period of play. To put it in different terms, Harper has been 16% below average at the plate over the last month.
What in the name of T-Mobile commercials is going on here? He was back, wasn’t he? He was, and yet after the Nationals day off on May 15th, something pernicious has happened to Bryce Harper at the plate.
My first thought was that he might be secretly injured again. I then saw the 98.2 MPH bullet he darted to home plate to briefly save the game against the Braves Monday, and I threw that theory out. Then I doubled down on the injury theory and said maybe it was only affecting his hitting. So I went over to Baseball Savant and found Bryce’s average exit velocity from the start of the season until the 14th of May: 91.7 MPH. I then queried what it was from the 15th until the current day and was absolutely stunned to see the result: 91.5 MPH. Right. So… probably not that.
I started digging deeper and discovered something funny in 2017: Pitchers were throwing Bryce Harper more strikes. A decent bit more. 5% more. Early in the year, this was a problem for them, because Harper was absolutely wrecking those strikes. Take a look at his slugging heat map from Fangraphs for those first 34 games:
I know right? That’s a special kind of incredible. Then came the change. Bryce started swinging a bit more overall (6%), a bit more in the zone (6.2%), and a bit more out of the zone (5.4%). His contact rate remained virtually identical (plus 0.2%). So that should be good shouldn’t it? A guy doing that kind of damage swinging at more pitches in the zone if he’s making the same contact rate? Except it isn’t. Recall that heat map I just showed you of Harper’s slugging percentage up to May 14th. Now look at his slugging heat map since:
Well that’s certainly a change. So what has happened? The blunt answer is that when he makes contact Harper simply isn’t doing any damage. Part of it can be attributed to his 160-point drop in BABIP, but I also found something else: Harper is doing nothing against fastballs. In his first 34 games Harper created 5.02 runs per 100 fastballs he saw. In the 22 games since, for every 100 fastballs he’s seen he has created a paltry 0.47 runs. Surprisingly, pitchers are actually throwing him 1.9% less fastballs since May 14th.
There are signs of life though of late. In the past seven days Harper has started to climb out of his pit and is hitting .292/.393/.500 with a HR, a line which is 31% better than the rest of the league during that time. Hopefully for fans in D.C. this is a sign that the sleeping giant in right field is about to wake back up.Tags: Bryce Harper, Nationals, Nats, Washington Nationals