A frequently asked question this spring in FanGraphs chats, and presumably around water coolers inside and outside the Beltway, concerned which Bryce Harper we would see in 2017.
Would we see the 2015, Ted Williams-like, Griffey Jr.-in-his-prime, Hall-of-Fame-trajectory version? Or would we see something closer to the perplexing, if still productive, 2016 version. (Harper must have been restricted by nagging injuries last season, right?)
So far it seems like the answer is more likely the former, but perhaps it is neither. Instead of settling for somewhere between those outcomes, perhaps what Harper has really set out to do is to exceed the extremely high bar he set in 2015.
In a season of surprises, in a season of Aaron Judges and Ryan Zimmermans and Rockies and Twins, and talk about fly-ball and home-run trends, Harper has been the best hitter the game — and even better than his 2015 self with a quarter of the season having been played. That’s a surprise. I don’t think anyone believes Harper can sustain his .388/.503/.767 slash line or 220 wRC+, but then again this was player who produced a 10-win age-22 season.
What’s interesting to this author is that, at 24, Harper is presumably still learning the game, himself, and is apparently becoming a more skilled, more mature, and more selective hitter.
Consider where he most often took his swings in 2015:
Consider where he most often took his swings in 2016:
And consider where he is most often taking his swings in 2017:
Not unlike those heat maps of Miguel Sano, Eric Thames, those data-density charts have the look of a hitter narrowing his focus, becoming more selective, and perhaps zero-ing in on the regions where he can do the most damage. And that region is down in the zone.
And there is something else, too. Harper is also perhaps closing one of the few remaining holes in his swing. Even during his MVP season in 2015, Harper had some weaker areas in the zone — including a curious one for a left-handed batter: the down-and-in location versus all pitches. Consider his slugging percentage per swing by location in 2015:
And thus far this season:
If you examine those charts, you’ll see Harper has become more effective at hitting for power on the inside part of the plate — and particularly down and in — this season.
Consider his exit velocity on pitch locations in the lower- to middle-inner half of the zone and in off the plate, according to BaseballSavant’s detailed zone search:
2015: 85.8 mph mph (58 balls in play)
2016: 88.0 mph (52 balls in play)
2017: 91.8 mph (22 balls in play)
If you examine those charts, and those exit velocities, you will see Harper has become more effective at hitting for power on the inner third, and in and off the plate. This is interesting since Harper has always had that awkward, front-foot-in-the-bucket movement on certain swings on inside pitches. He still does it, and while it’s not textbook, it certainly does not sap him of power. There are even those who endorse the practice:
Step in the Bucket pic.twitter.com/qlfs3hRnd9
— Derek Florko (@SaberCoach) May 17, 2017
Consider his second home run of the season and the location of the pitch:
Consider the pitch location of the laser of a home run Harper hit Tuesday night in Pittsburgh:
He’s not only filling a void, but he’s better hammering mistakes. He’s doing roughly twice as much damage on pitches in the lower-middle of the strike zone compared to 2015. Consider this pitch in the ninth inning Saturday that was left out over the middle of the plate hours after it was announced Harper had agreed to a $21-million, one-year deal for 2018, his final year of club control:
The trade-off could be that he’s not covering the outside of the strike zone quite as well, but if it’s a trade-off for better damaging mistakes middle and in, then the Nationals will likely accept it.
I asked Harper on Thursday about any changes in approach he has made. And if he had made them, he didn’t divulge.
“I don’t look at heat maps. I don’t look at being patient or not being patient, or what the guy is going to throw me, or not going to throw me,” Harper said. “I don’t look at any video. I just go out there and try to play and let it all come together the best I can.”
Does he feel he’s improved on the inner third?
“I have no idea,” Harper said. “I am just trying to go out there and see the ball, hit the ball.”
But maybe Harper isn’t even aware of gains he’s making. Perhaps he’s unwilling to consciously detail any growth or adjustments, or perhaps it is a subconscious development.
What’s interesting is that much was made of the Chicago Cubs decision to pitch around Harper during a series last May, before Harper’s struggle began. There was a theory, a narrative formed, that it got Harper off his game. There was an idea that he began to expand his zone. (Of course, Harper’s swing-location frequency last season was similar in 2016 and 2015). Who knows. But Nationals manager Dusty Baker said something at the time that’s perhaps applicable to Harper’s success now.
Baker told reporters and Fox Sports something of interest last May:
“Before they stopped pitching to Bryce, about the last couple weeks in April, he was kind of struggling a little bit. You know what I mean?. So they’re actually doing Bryce a favor. The more pitches he sees he can zero in on what is good and what’s not.”
Another theory: maybe Harper learned to zero in last season, but he just needed full health to take advantage of the lesson, of the experience.
By refining his focus, he’s become more efficient when he swings. It’s similar to the Barry Bonds theory of hitting which Thames adopted in South Korea. It’s not unlike what Sano is doing in Minnesota, or to a lesser degree in Cleveland, where Francisco Lindor has increased his power.
Harper is zeroing in. What that means for a player who already has a 10-win season and MVP award on his resume is quite terrifying for opponents and a spectacle to enjoyr for the rest of us. We don’t where Harper will go from here in regard to performance, but there seems to be a good chance that we haven’t seen the best of Bryce.