Monday, May 4, 2015

Harper's Breakout?

Through the first month of the season, Bryce Harper has been the best offensive player on the Nationals. As of Sunday night, he was sporting a .265/.426/.506 triple slash line with 5 homeruns. Think about that for a second, Bryce is getting on base in nearly half of his plate appearances. Just to remind everyone, Bryce still hasn’t faced a pitcher younger than him and is actually younger than Cubs uber-prospect Kris Bryant, who has only a few weeks of MLB level games to his name. What he is doing offensively at his age has only been done a handful of times in MLB history. We are getting to the point where players have accumulated enough at bats in this 2015 season that their peripheral stats (i.e. K%, BB%, etc) are starting to show more signal than noise, so let’s take a look at Bryce’s year so far to see if this is just a hot month or a sign of a breakout.

As a reminder, our 2014 review of Bryce’s season showed some pretty scary trends. Bryce was walking less, striking out more, and struggling to make contact. That review also noted his hot end to the 2014 season, theorizing that maybe Bryce was hitting well because he was finally healthy. In some ways, Bryce has corrected those trends to a very successful degree, but in others, there are still reasons for concern.

The biggest thing that pops out from a quick perusal of his 2015 stats is the 22.2% walk rate. Bryce’s career high in BB% was 12.3% two years ago and had dropped down under 10% last year. His 2015 walk rate, in fact, leads all the majors (with minimum plate appearances) and puts him in company with all-star caliber hitters like Matt Holliday and Miguel Cabrera. Now, Bryce has gotten intentionally walked 5 times already this year. While pitchers are certainly careful when Bryce steps to the plate, those intentional walks were more a result of the injuries at the start of the year and lack of protection in the lineup around him than a Barry Bonds level of respect for Harper’s ability. I wouldn’t expect those intentional walks to continue at such a rate, so that BB% might come down as the season progresses.

While the increased walk rate is definitely a good thing, it’s hiding a further increase in Harper’s strikeout rate. Everyone was concerned about Bryce’s strikeouts in 2014, where he whiffed 26% of the time in his at bats. This year, that is up to nearly 31%. That rate is comparable to hackers like George Springer and Brett Lawrie, although Giancarlo Stanton has a higher K% this year than Harper, so it’s not a back breaking strikeout rate.

In looking for a source of the spike in strikeouts, I always go to plate discipline. Bryce is swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone this year, 28.9% this year versus 35% in years past. However, Bryce is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone this year as well, only 70% versus career norm of about 75%. Bryce is being more selective when he swings, but he is making it count when he does swing. His contact rate is a career high 78% driven by an 89% contract rate on pitches in the zone and only a 9.4% swinging strike rate compared to a 13.7% rate last year. So, in summary, Bryce is swinging less often at pitches outside of the zone (good), swinging less often as pitches in the zone (could be good or bad), and making contact better than he ever has before (good). Reading the tea leaves, I think that likely indicates the strike out rate should come down somewhat as the season progresses.

So Harper is making more contact and, generally, he is making good contact. He is hitting fewer groundballs and more line drives and flyballs, a good mix for a power hitter like Harper. Interestingly, he has been hitting more infield fly balls this year (infield fly balls turn into outs something like 99% of the time and are basically as good as strikeouts from a pitcher’s perspective) at a rate of 11% when he has been closer to 8% in the past, so I would expect that to drop off a little bit. While I would expect fewer infield fly balls, unfortunately, I also expect Harper’s impressive home run rate to fall off as well. Through the first month, Harper’s HR/FB rate was a whopping 30% compared to his career rate of around 16%. If you buy into a step forward for Harper, you might expect him to improve on his career rate, but doubling it isn’t likely a sustainable step forward. That should come down as well.

Lastly, always take a look at Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). You can learn a lot about a hitter’s stats from this handy little number. For Harper, his BABIP is .370. That is pretty high considering the league average is usually just under .300. However, Harper has consistently put up BABIPS over .300 and ended up with a .352 last year. Harper probably can't keep hitting at a .370 BABIP level, but a big drop off isn’t a guarantee.

In the end, it’s sort of a mixed bag. I was hoping to find support for 2015 being the big breakout year everyone has been predicting for Harper since he was a 16 year old on the cover of SI, but didn’t find that. On the positive side, Harper is being more patient and taking more walks. He isn’t swinging at a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone and is putting the ball in play when he does take a cut. Those balls in play are usually fly balls and line drives, exactly what you want to see from a cleanup hitter. Harper’s BABIP is probably a little high, but shouldn’t see a huge drop off. Harper has been striking out a higher rate than he ever has before. That should come down somewhat, but strikeouts will always be a part of his game. Finally, Harper has been hitting balls out of the park at an unsustainable rate. Take that all together, and I think there are more positives than negatives. If Harper can stay healthy, an all-star appearance and some MVP consideration at the end of the year wouldn’t be out of the question.

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