Thursday, May 28, 2015

Harper's Home Run Rate

A few weeks ago, when Bryce Harper first started showing signs of a breakout, I examined the underlying peripheral stats Bryce had put up through the first month of the 2015 season. A lot of that analysis still holds true: Bryce is still walking a ton, his strikeout rate is still over 20%, he is still being more selective at the plate, etc. One of the items I pointed out was Harper’s HR/FB rate of 30%. I’m proud to remind you that I saw that stat as a sign of a drop off in home runs. Let’s just say I was a little off the mark.

So, I don’t plan on making any predictions for Bryce (although I will take full credit as the reverse-jinx source of all those home runs). Instead, I took a look at home run rates to see where Bryce's stacks up. As of yesterday (I’m writing this while watching the game against the Cubs and fully expect Bryce to do something awesome that ruins the stats on this post - Thursday morning note: he only hit one opposite field home run, so dodged a bullet on that one), Bryce’s HR/FB rate was 35.4% (as a reminder, this stat measures the number of home runs per fly balls hit. It’s not a perfect stat, but it’s a quick measure of power that is comparable year over year). That rate is good enough for 2nd in the majors so far in 2015, behind only Starling Marte of the Pirates who checks in with a 37.5% rate. Closely behind Bryce are Pedro Alvarez (Pirates), Joc Pederson (Dodgers), and fellow world beater Nelson Cruz (Mariners) as the only players with a rate over 30% this season. What really differentiates this top tier of home run hitters is fly ball rate. Only Cruz and Harper hit fly balls at least 40% of the time, with Pedro Alvarez all the way down at 26%. So while Marte, Pederson, and Alvarez have been hitting home runs out at a high rate per fly ball, they don’t hit enough balls in the air to match the home run output of Cruz and Harper. If you plan on being a home run hitter, you want to hit fly balls and you want to turn fly balls into home runs as often as possible. It’s no surprise, then, that with fly ball rates over 40% and HR/FB rates over 30%, Cruz and Harper are the home run leaders so far in 2015.

Ok, we have established that Bryce has been hitting home runs at an impressive rate. It didn’t take that last paragraph to prove that to you. Just turn on the TV and watch Bryce hit every night and you could figure that out. What’s really interesting is figuring out where Bryce’s HR/FB rate will end up. I promised no predictions, but I’ll give his 2015 rate some context. Filtering from the last 5 seasons (2010-2015), the leaders in HR/FB rates are the same 5 leaders in 2015 (Marte-Cruz). The highest, full season HR/FB rate of the last 5 years belongs to the 2013 version of the Orioles Chris Davis in the year he hit 53 home runs. That year, his HR/FB rate was 29.6%, indicating that we should see some pullback in those 2015 rates by the end of the year. The full season leaderboard continues with 2012 Adam Dunn (29.3%), 2014 Jose Abreu (26.9%), 2013 Pedro Alvarez (26.3%), 2012 Josh Hamilton (25.6%), and 2014 Giancarlo Stanton (25.5%). All of those hitters slugged more than 35 home runs in the year they posted those HR/FB rates, so I wouldn’t give you a funny look for penciling Harper in for at least 35 dingers this year. At the same time, history tells us that Harper’s full year HR/FB rate is likely to be closer to 30% than 40%.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that you don’t see any repeats on that top 5 list. In fact, you have to go down to #7 on that list to find a repeat leader in Chris Davis’ 2012 season when he posted a 25.2% rate. If you needed more reason to appreciate what Bryce has done and will do this season, keep that in mind. The rate Bryce has been hitting home runs has only been done by some of the best power hitters of the last 5 years during their most productive seasons.

Just for fun, I pulled a couple other Bryce Harper home run related factoids. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, Bryce has hit 3 “no doubt” home runs, trailing behind the 8 hit by Edwin Encarnacion. These are home runs that were hit well over the fence in the park they were hit. This seems a little low, considering 9 of Harper’s home runs have gone over 400 feet. Equally as surprising, Harper has 5 home runs classified as “just enough” by ESPN (home runs that only barely cleared the fence in the park they were hit), behind Justin Upton and Ryan Howard with 7 a piece. We know one of those “just enough” homers was the ball that Bryce thought was a pop out until it hit the jet stream in Wrigley, but I would guess the remainder of the classifications are more a factor of the ballpark configurations than an indictment of Bryce’s power. All in all, Bryce is averaging 322.47 feet per Home Run and Fly Ball, 2nd best in the majors this year behind, you guessed it, Kelly Johnson. Sometimes baseball is just weird.

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