In his first week in Philadelphia, Bryce Harper came out firing on all cylinders. He homered in three of his first four games, including a long blast (and majestic bat flip) in his first game back at Nationals Park, where he was greeted with a chorus of boos.
But since Harper’s first five games of the 2019 season, he’s been hitting like one of the worst hitters in baseball. That is, before he broke out in a big way last night, going 2-for-3 with a single, walk, and grand slam. But, in a much larger sample of 128 plate appearances between when the Nationals series ended and last night, Harper had slashed just .185/.313/.343 with as many home runs (three) as he had in his first 23 plate appearances in those first five games. The 80 wRC+ he put up during that stretch ranked 201st out of the 283 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances. Harper was not only failing to hit like a superstar, he was actually hitting like one of the worst players in the league.
|First 5 Games||23||.500||.652||1.188||3||30.4%||21.7%||.691||344|
|April 5 to May 6||128||.185||.313||.343||3||14.1%||31.3%||.291||80|
Clearly, with the exception of last night (which may or may not be the start of a breakout), Harper is slumping. His true talent level isn’t that of an 80 wRC+ player, but what this long cold stretch has demonstrated is that, even in a new environment in Philadelphia, Harper remains the same streaky player that he was while with Washington. His only saving grace so far this year has been the rebound of his defensive metrics, with a +4.0 UZR in right field, but at this point in the season, we can’t read too far into these numbers. Buoyed by that early run and that defense, Harper has put up 1.2 WAR in 35 games, so if his bat does eventually turn around, he could be in for a very successful 2019.
Before we explore the factors that are leading to Harper’s struggles, I want to focus on the good here. For one, when Harper makes contact, he’s crushing the ball. His 12.7% barrel rate ranks in the 82nd percentile, and it represents the second-highest mark of his career during the Statcast era (2015-present). His average exit velocity of 91.2 mph is identical to the mark he put up when winning the MVP in 2015, but because of his very high strikeout rate, his .359 xwOBA doesn’t rank among the game’s elite hitters.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. Harper is crushing the ball when he makes contact, but he doesn’t make enough contact to benefit from this talent. His 66.0% contact rate is the fifth-lowest among qualified hitters, and his 76.6% contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone is seventh-lowest. Harper’s selectivity remains good; he’s still above-average in both swing percentage on pitches outside of the zone (where lower is better) and swing percentage on pitches inside of the zone (where higher is better). Harper’s contact issues have been a troubling trend in recent years. It’s something Travis Sawchik and Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight identified back in March, when Harper first signed with the Phillies, and it’s clearly something that he has not been able to reverse through his first six weeks there.
What else might account for his struggles? We could point to the shift as part of the reason why, when Harper does make contact, he’s not getting as many hits as he’d otherwise expect to. His .307 BABIP this season still represents a year-over-year improvement, even as his overall average has fallen 13 points. He is being shifted on a career-high 65.3% of the time, and his expected batting average (.251) might demonstrate that Harper has been robbed of a few hits, but it’s not as if he’d be hitting significantly better even under “normal” circumstances. This would suggest that Harper’s contact rate — as opposed to the shift — is the biggest issue for his performance.
In assessing his performance, one Harper split that really caught my eye was his home versus road numbers.
There is a lot of weird stuff going on here. Harper’s hitting 121 points better on the road, but his on-base percentages are only 28 points apart, likely due to a stark difference in walk rate. Harper isn’t getting intentionally walked more at home (two at both home and on the road), so that’s not an easy out to explain the difference here.
Could Harper be making more contact on the road than at home? Using information from Baseball Savant, we are able to recreate our “contact rate” metric.
First, this all comes with the caveat that it isn’t likely predicative; these are still relatively small samples. But, what these numbers do tell us is what has happened.
Harper swings at a rate above the league-average mark on the road, while being seemingly more passive at home. In particular, this disparity is dominated by a swing rate on pitches inside of the strike zone (70.3% at home, 74.3% on the road). His contact rates, too, are odd. He’s making contact on pitches outside of the strike zone nearly 57% of the time at home; that’s actually more or less in line with his career average (60.6%). On the road, though, he’s just not hitting pitches outside of the zone (27% O-Contact rate). That might explain the huge disparity in K% between his home (26.4%) and road splits (32.8%), and his tendency to swing more on the road could explain the discrepancy in BB%, too (19.8% at home, 12.5% on road).
I wonder if Harper is trying to sell out for power while at home, in hopes of looking like a superstar in Philadelphia. Why would this theory make sense? Well, for one, Harper might be looking for pitches that are not only inside the zone, but also in his wheelhouse; this would explain the lower Z-Swing% at home and the lower Swing% overall. But, Harper is also experiencing a huge difference in his batted ball profiles at home and on the road, something that I also think plays into this.
Again, sample size might be an issue here, but look at how Harper is seemingly trying to hit more fly balls at home. On the road, Harper is hitting more line drives, and as a result, he’s hitting the ball harder. This might explain why Harper’s batting average is so low at home (.183) versus on the road (.304), and it might also indicate why his isolated power is only slightly lower at home (.240) than on the road (.250). My best guess is that Harper is (rather unsuccessfully) trying to put on a power show for fans in Philadelphia, while he’s acting like a more complete hitter when playing anywhere else. This might not truly be the case, but I’d argue that many of these figures nicely back up this theory.
My last point with regard to this trying-too-hard theory is pre-Phillies Harper. Prior to his time with the Phillies, Harper generally hit better at home, though, interestingly enough, 2019 is not the only time in his career he’s had a higher OPS on the road. In 2017, Harper’s home OPS of .956 was 108 points lower than his road OPS of 1.064, though I don’t think anyone would complain about either of those. His 2014 season represents the largest difference prior to this season, when he posted an .839 OPS away from Nationals Park, 133 points above his home OPS that season of just .706.
|Year||Home OPS||Road OPS||Difference|
It’s hard to quite put my finger on why those things happened, and though I don’t think this information necessarily takes away from the idea that Harper is trying too hard to impress Phillies fans, it is important for general context.
That could be the end of the article right there. I told you something Harper is doing — something that’s clearly weird — and tried to make some sense of it. But I don’t think that is all that is going on here. There’s a second split that has intrigued me, that being Harper’s split against left-handed pitching versus right-handed pitching. Historically, Harper has been significantly better versus righties (.937 OPS) than lefties (.803 OPS), but he’s experiencing an extreme reverse split so far this year.
Could his poor numbers against right-handed pitching be contributing to Harper’s slow start? I’m about to show you Harper’s plate discipline broken down by handedness; you’ll see some of the same trends that we saw in the home-road split.
Look at Harper’s O-Contact%, especially against right-handers. A pitch outside of the zone is probably not one that you want to make contact against, though it is important to note that Harper decides to lay off just about 60% of them. On pitches outside of the zone, hitters have posted just a .298 wOBA. Even when they make contact against these pitches, as Harper has done the majority of the time, hitters have just a .293 wOBA. Harper might actually be better off if he didn’t make contact as much against pitches outside of the zone. That is easier said than done, of course. Now, for the handedness split, here’s the same batted ball chart as above.
As mentioned above, Harper making more contact out of the zone against right-handers is likely one of the driving factors for his lower hard-hit rate against them. A positive here? Harper is still hitting the ball to all fields and keeping his groundball rate fairly low. What we may see ultimately is a reversal of luck, as he’s currently posting just a .271 BABIP against righties, significantly lower than his career .316 BABIP on the split.
I’m fairly certain that Harper will rebound; as I wrote above, there’s very little chance that he’s suddenly an 80 wRC+ hitter now. But the reason behind this slump is potentially more complicated. Overall, Harper continues to struggle with making contact, and that’s never a good thing. Part of this might be coming with the added pressure of proving his “worth” in Philadelphia. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that there’s an at least half-decent chance that Harper is trying so hard to be a superstar that he’s actually hurting his numbers in the process.
It’s always tough to be a slumping player, but when an entire city seemingly now owns your jersey, after you chose them to be your destination, I’d imagine it is exponentially harder. Harper should focus less on selling out for power and more on just creating contact. The 465-foot home runs are fun, but he still possess enough raw power that he doesn’t always have to be swinging (and missing) as hard as he does. Sometimes a little bit of rinky-dink baseball works, too. The power will always be there.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.