“Lots of people say I’ve changed, and that I’ve done that or done this, but I’ve done this my whole life,” Bryce Harper said when I approached him about his breakout season so far. To some extent, he’s right. He’s just doing what he’s done, more often. Even the things he’s changed have been a return to his roots, to an extent.
“I’ve walked my whole life,” he pointed out. His walk rate in the minors was 13.3%, and before this year, he had a 10.4% walk rate in the majors. So he’s right, and as a young player — at 22, he’d still be two years younger than the average Double-A player, and he has yet to face a pitcher younger than him in the big leagues — he was destined to get better. Batters swing and reach less at the steepest rate before they turn 24, and Harper has improved in both cases by about five percentage points so far this year. Even if his current walk rate is double his career rate.
“Staying in the lineup, being healthy, being in the lineup every day no matter what”: that’s what Bryce Harper thought led to this start. “Not taking breaks. When I’m hurt, I’ll take a two month break and I’m not quite the same when I come back, it’s like going back to Spring Training. In September and October, I rake again.”
And though looking at seasonal splits doesn’t tell you a lot about what’s going to happen in the future, it can tell you that his memory of events is right. Check out the points at which he was injured on these season-by-season weighted on base average (wOBA) charts.
“I don’t like pulling the ball,” claimed Harper, even as he agrees that Jeff Sullivan was right to point out that he’s pulling the ball more this year, especially in the air. Here are relevant rates on that subject, indexed to his career numbers. You can see that he’s hitting more balls in the air, pulling them more, and hitting them harder and further.
“Of course I’m pulling for power but I want the ball to left center, and I enjoy pitches on the outer part of the plate,” continued Harper. “Joey Votto talked to me four or five years ago, said if you want to hit .300 and you want to do what you want to do, you have to hit the ball to left field.” That should sound familiar to a FanGraphs reader, and Harper’s heat map agrees with his appraisal of his swing.
As for mechanical changes, Harper didn’t have much to offer. He mostly wants to “keep his front side in,” and doesn’t worry too much about his hands. Yes, his back foot comes up, and maybe it comes up less this year, and he does like to think about having a nice weight transfer, but he doesn’t specifically think about that foot.
Maybe what’s going on is a little more simple. Most lefties like the ball low and in. “I hate that pitch,” said Harper. Harper is famously aggressive on first pitches — his career swing rate on them is 40% compared to a league that averages around 10%. Here’s where pitchers have been throwing their first pitches to Harper this year. Those are wheelhouse pitches for the most part.
Here’s the thing about using this knowledge about Harper’s preference for pitches on the outside part of the plate: it’s not easy. Even as Harper admits that executing his strategy of going the other way can be tough — “It’s getting harder every single year, because you’re seeing guys that are better. You’re seeing guys that are out of the pen at 98 mph and you’re seeing lefties that are 97, 98 also and can spot it” — it’s even harder to take advantage of his lone weakness.
So, try to throw the ball inside to Bryce Harper. If you do it once, are you going to go there again? “If you can pick a guy out of the big leagues that can throw three straight heaters on the inside part of the plate, and paint those pitches, I’ll tip my cap to them,” said Harper. “If they can do that, that’s very impressive.” So far, they haven’t been able to.
The player will still have his approach — “You just wait for that pitch out over and try not to swing at the pitch inside half” — but he’s not too worried about it. “You’re not going to find that guy that can paint on the inside half.”
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.