I graduated from Villanova University this past weekend, which means that I spent four years in Philadelphia during the most publicized tanking job any pro team has ever undergone: The Sixers’ “Process.” I had to hear for years about the good, bad, and ugly of purposely losing in order to win at some undetermined point in the future. Baseball has had its versions of tanking as well: the Astros are the notable franchise who many consider “tankers”, and we saw the fruits of their process in November when they took home a World Series title. In NBA circles, the self-appointed geniuses believe tanking is the best (and often, only) way to build a winner, and MLB minds have started to wonder if that works in baseball as well.
Watching Sunday’s loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers, I was struck by something said by color commentator F.P. Santangelo – and not in a head-scratching way.
He was talking about Bryce Harper’s struggles at the plate in recent weeks, which are only magnified by the fact that he has not been the team’s best hitter this year (or in 2017…or in 2016) and is potentially on his way to the largest contract in the history of the sport.
F.P.’s thesis? That when Bryce gets hot, teams stop giving him pitches to hit. (Cut to Joe Maddon nodding.) And when he stops getting pitches to hit, he loses his rhythm and takes awhile to readjust. The only player, F.P. said, who’s succeeded like that was Barry Bonds, who’s on the shortlist for Greatest of All-Time honors (don’t @ me).
Intuitively, this makes sense. But it’s also important to view Harper’s struggles within the context of this Washington Nationals season.
That Nats entered May a sub-.500 team. The face of the franchise might walk in the offseason. Everyone is hurt. There have been many reasons for pessimism among the Nats faithful and far fewer curly Ws than were expected in the first quarter of the year. Harper is the team’s most talented hitter. Is it possible he’s trying to shoulder the load that comes with a struggling team himself? Is it possible he’s doing too much?
Let’s unpack these: The Lost Rhythm and Doing Too Much.
The Lost Rhythm
Fangraphs computes a statistic called Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), a comprehensive rate statistic used to measure hitting performance that is both park and league adjusted, where 100 represents league average. Harper’s career wRC+ is 141, meaning for his career he’s hit approximately 41% better than league average.
Here’s his 15-game rolling wRC+ from 2018. We can see he started the year strong before steadily losing production as the season progressed.
But is that because pitchers stopped throwing him strikes? Well, not really. Because they never have.
For his career, Harper has seen 38.6% of pitches in the strike zone. In 2018, he’s seen…38.2%. That’s lower than league average and ranks eighth lowest in all of baseball this season just behind Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. If we break the sample out to include all years between 2012-2018, Harper’s faced the third lowest percentage of strikes behind noted free swingers Pablo Sandoval and Josh Hamilton.
He’s never had pitches to hit. This ain’t new.
And if we look at the graph below, a 15-game rolling zone % from 2016-2018, we see that he’s faced lower sustained percentages of strikes thrown his way, including that 2016 Cubs series where he walked 13 times in four games. He’s not getting pitches to hit now, but it’s been worse.
So as far as losing rhythm goes, I don’t buy it. We need to look at his approach.
Doing Too Much
Baseball is not the ultimate team sport. Sure, all nine starters rely on one another to do their jobs well, but hitter vs. pitcher is as one-on-one as it gets in sports. So if Harper is frustrated at the plate (frustrated enough to call the rest of his supporting cast the Syracuse Sky Chiefs), we might expect him to try a little harder at the plate to create runs.
Maybe he’s dropped his launch angle to create more loft on his hits?
But that’s not true. In 2018, his average launch angle of 12.9 degrees would rank a career worst, per Statcast data. Nor are the balls he’s hitting in the air any less likely to leave the yard, per Fangraphs. In fact, his 28.3% HR/FB rate is nearly 10 percentage points above his career mark.
His strikeout and walk percentages both best his career averages, but maybe it’s something in his pitch-by-pitch approach that’s causing him to struggle?
We can see that, of late, he’s been swinging and making contact with more pitches outside of the strike zone, though he’s not hitting the ball any less hard than in years past. He ranks 55th out of 389 hitters in average exit velocity at 91.7 mph (Mike Trout ranks 58 on this list), and his hard hit percentage (balls 95 mph+) of 48.4% ranks 43. Last year his hard hit percentage of 42.9% ranked 56.
That leaves us at batted ball luck. If he’s hitting the ball hard and not getting hits he must be a bit unlucky, perhaps?
His 2018 BABIP of .193 is off his .316 career mark by quite a bit and ranks third worst in all of baseball. We might expect that to rise by a point or 100 in the coming weeks and months, but there’s potentially more at play.
This year, Harper is pulling the ball far more than last year (45.9% vs. 35.5%). I had trouble finding reliable shift data (comment if you can find a good source!), but teams will load up the right side of the infield against Harper from time to time. So while it’s possible he’s hitting the ball hard into well-positioned fielders, his 2018 pull percentage is also in line with the number he posted in 2015.
You know, when he was the National League MVP.
Last summer, I got back in the habit of reading for pleasure every day. I called it “Maddie’s Summer Book Club of One”, and we had a splendid time. This summer, MSBCOO (the name is still being workshopped) is back for the second time, but unlike last year, we have a theme. This summer, I’m going to read as many baseball books as I can. This means fiction about or including lots of baseball, player biographies, historical nonfiction, and books about strategy and the intricacies of gameplay.
The Nats’ bullpen has been in flux for most of the season, what with injuries and inconsistency. It’s been better of late, but the reality is that the Nationals are going to have to make some changes if they want a rock-solid, scary bullpen, and especially if they want a chance at making a deep run into the playoffs. Last year, their bullpen was their biggest weakness, and they don’t want that to happen again this year. At the deadline, they’re likely going to have to make a move to shore up that bullpen. My proposed solution: bring Craig Stammen back to the Nationals.
Okay, sorry. Now that I’ve gotten my Uncle Buck/bug-gnat-Nats reference out of the way, let’s talk about the squad’s injury issues and how they’re countering them.
Jeremy Hellickson began his tenure as a Washington National as a relative afterthought: a low-risk insurance policy for a franchise with little pitching depth, someone that could be counted on to at least throw strikes in Triple-A and in the Majors if injuries were to occur. Flash forward to mid-April, when A.J. Cole finally lost his ninth life as a Nats prospect and was demoted from the fifth starter role (and traded a week later) in favor of the 31-year old veteran Hellickson. Not much is generally expected from the number 5 guy in a rotation besides staying giving his club some quality innings so as not to destroy the bullpen.
Yet here we stand halfway through May with Hellickson having started six games and the numbers are astounding. 2.20 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 5.2 K/BB ratio, and while he only has one decision (a win), the Nats are 4-2 in his starts. Save perhaps the otherworldly Houston Astros, no team in baseball has been as pleased with their fifth starter as Washington. But is it sustainable to any extent? Let’s look at the underlying numbers.
Michael A. Taylor is one of the more polarizing Washington Nationals. Since his first sustained big league action in 2015, he’d graded as a slightly above average position player who’d combine out-of-body athletic moments with liver-soaking runs of failure.
Then, in 2017, he took a huge step forward. He slashed .271/.320/.486 on his way to a 105 wRC+ and 3.2 Fangraphs WAR, which would have 10th among centerfielders had he logged enough plate appearances to qualify. He even played his typically strong defense.
He hasn’t hit this year (a subject that deserves 800 words all its own), but his glove has been fine. Better than fine, actually: the word I’m looking for is elite.
Continue Reading Michael A. Taylor Is The Best Defensive Outfielder In Baseball — Right Now
This time last year, Nationals fans were watching implosion after implosion after implosion coming from the bullpen—leading to the worst reliever ERA in the majors. Mike Rizzo, doing what he does best, went out and formed The Law Firm of Kintzler, Madson, and Doolittle. The second half of 2017, the Nats bullpen was one of the better in the majors. After the season, he also convinced Brandon Kintzler to eschew more high-profile closer roles, and return to DC for a chance at a title. How much better has 2018 been?
“You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.” -Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Last weekend, Bryce Harper’s legacy as a Washington National was further cemented, as the Nationals Dream Foundation dedicated Bryce Harper Field in Northwest DC, at the Takoma Community Center. The city was able to open the field with a donation from the Nationals Dream Foundation and Harper himself. The Nationals Dream Foundation plans to donate a field to the community every year, and so far they’ve made good on that promise, with Bryce Harper Field joining Ryan Zimmerman and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez Field.