Monday, November 30, 2015

2015 Season Review: Bryce Harper

I don’t think you need me to tell you how great Bryce Harper’s 2015 season was. The fact he was the unanimous NL MVP tells you most of what you need to know. A lot of other writers spent a lot of words talking about how impressive the numbers put up by Harper were. Indeed, they were historically impressive. Rather than rehash the impressive numbers themselves, for this review I want to see what changed in 2015 for Bryce that resulted in such a monstrous year. This will offer more insight into the drivers behind Bryce’s career year and might give us a better indication of whether 2015 is a sign of things to come or an outlier.

Of course, the biggest and most obvious difference in 2015 was Harper’s health. He played in 153 games, topping his previous career high of 139 in his rookie year. He battled a couple of bumps and bruises, sure, but he never hit the DL. Most importantly, he never hit any outfield walls. The narrative for Bryce leading into 2015 revolved around how his health was holding him back. Pundits questioned whether Harper’s hair on fire style would ever allow him to stay healthy and reach his much discussed potential. Harper proved in 2015 that if he was able to stay on the field and play at or at least close to 100% health, he’s an all time type of player.

If health is the first piece of the puzzle in Harper’s breakout, patience is the next. Although Bryce still struck out at a 20% clip, close to league average, his walk rate spiked to 19% in 2015. Harper’s previous career high was 12% back in 2013. That previous rate would be solid for anyone, considering the league average walk rate is around 7, but for Bryce, his improved patience in 2015 drove the rest of his offensive game.

In being patient, Harper didn’t decide to just start swinging at fewer pitches, although his swing rate of 45% in 2015 was the lowest rate ever for Harper. Rather, Harper waited for his pitch and laid off of pitcher’s pitches. Harper swung at balls out of the strike zone at only a 28% rate, another career low for Bryce. His swinging strike rate, the percentage of time Bryce swung and missed at a pitch, was down to under 11%, another new low. For someone with Harper’s powerful swing, fewer swings at bad pitches can make a big difference and that showed up in 2015 for Harper. When Harper found his pitch to hit, he usually put a good swing on the ball. While the rest of the league averaged a soft hit rate of 18% in 2015, Bryce’s swings resulted in batted balls classified as softly hit under 12% of the time, meaning the rest of Harper's contact was medium to hard to hit.

Pitchers certainly took notice of the change in Harper’s approach and they changed how they attacked Bryce in 2015. Interestingly, pitchers were forced to attack Harper with more fastballs in 2015 than they ever had in the past. By laying off of balls out of the strike zone, Harper forced pitchers to throw him strikes. And when pitchers need a strike, they are forced to go to the fastball, which they did nearly 56% of the time against Harper in 2015. Obviously, pitchers know that Bryce is likely hunting fastballs, but his ability to handle off speed pitches last season didn’t leave pitchers much choice. After struggling against certain off speed pitches in the past, Harper swung and missed on off speed pitches at the lowest rates of his career in 2015. He was able to recognize pitches he couldn’t handle and lay off them, especially sliders and change ups, two pitches he had real trouble with early in his career. When Harper did swing at off speed pitches, he did a lot of damage. He hit 9 home runs off of sliders. He posted a .236 ISO versus curveballs. He had a .361 batting average against change ups. Those kind of numbers didn’t leave pitchers a lot of room to mess around with breaking balls anywhere near the zone.

As pitchers became more careful in their approach to Harper, Harper was able to wait out his pitch. And when Bryce got his pitch, he usually didn’t miss his chance. Although Harper spends a lot of time talking about how he wants to hit the ball to all fields and how his goal in every at bat is to hit a ball hard up the middle, he does the most damage when he pulls the ball with his powerful, Ruth-ian swing. In 2015, Harper was able to find those pitches and pull them with authority. After a previous career high of 39%, Harper pulled balls at a 45% rate in 2015. On the one hand, that does leave Harper vulnerable to defensive shifts that stack the right side of the infield. However, Harper’s selective approach meant that he was more likely to hit line drives and fly balls and not groundballs. His groundball rate of 38.5% means that an infield shift has few chances to steal ground ball base hits.

Harper’s refined approach at the plate is a skill that should carry over to 2016, and beyond. However, the pessimist can certainly find some aspects of Harper’s 2015 that might be difficult to repeat. In order to hit 40+ home runs, a player has to convert a pretty high rate of his fly balls into home runs. In 2015, Harper’s rate of Home Runs to Fly Balls (HR/FB%) was 27.3%. That means that over ¼ of Harper’s fly balls cleared the fences for a home run. That’s a historically high rate. FanGraphs only has the data for HR/FB% dating back to 2002, but for comparison, I pulled up Barry Bonds, another record setting, power hitting, left handed outfield slugger. From 2002 until his retirement, Bonds never posted a HR/FB% at or above Harper’s rate in 2015. This data range does exclude his 73 home run year, but in the available range Bonds’ highest rate was 27.1% and he averaged 25%. It’s a sample size of one, but Harper was hitting home runs at a higher rate than peak Barry Bonds. That might be hard to keep up.

Surprisingly, although Harper hit home runs at a high clip, he actually didn’t hit them too far in comparison to other sluggers with 40 home run potential. Home runs obviously have to clear the fence of the stadium and each stadium has different dimensions. A home run in Philadelphia’s band box of a stadium is not the same as a home run over the fences at the Giants’ expansive stadium in San Francisco. A good measure of just how much power a hitter possess is the measurement of average distance on his fly balls and home runs. The higher the average, the more power and home runs you would expect. Below is a table of the other power hitters on the home run leader board with Harper last year.

Player Distance
Giancarlo Stanton 323
Chris Davis 316
Paul Goldschmidt 310
Nelson Cruz 307
Josh Donaldson 304
Mike Trout 301
Bryce Harper 299
Nolan Arenado 297

Harper’s batted ball distance exceeded only that of Nolan Arenado, although he is neck and neck with Mike Trout. This isn’t necessarily an indictment of Bryce’s power. He is a more complete hitter than Chris Davis, for example, as he hits for a higher batting average. However, the sky high home run rate combined with the only above average fly ball distance indicates that Harper may settle in as a 30 home run, .300 batting average hitter year over year, rather than a 40 home run hitter. For the Nationals, that’s a good thing as that is much more valuable than a Chris Davis three true outcome (home run, walk, strikeout) type of hitter, even with 40 home runs.

Nationals fans should be excited for Harper’s 2016, if they weren’t already. Harper is younger than the NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant but his refined approach at the plate belies his young age. Harper’s approach shouldn’t degrade any time soon. It might not result in 42 home runs again in 2016, but if the Nationals can field a healthy line up around Harper for once, it might actually be a more productive year.

Previous 2015 Season Reviews:
Denard Span
Ian Desmond
Doug Fister
Jordan Zimmermann
Wilson Ramos
Ryan Zimmerman
Danny Espinosa
Yunel Escobar

1 comment:

  1. It's nice to see these percentages on Harper's swings. The local announcers, especially FP, schooled us during Harper's ABs on the change from last year in his patience. FP told us pitches Harper would have swung at last year but laid off this year. It was uncanny how you could tell when Harper saw a pitch he liked and often would hit it--far. He has such a violent swing. It was a thing of beauty seeing him connect, whether at the park or on TV. I was at the Caps game (Ovi's recordbreaker) when they announced Harper as MVP. The crowd cheered loudly.