For a while there we thought the Bryce Harper vs. Mike Trout thing was done with. Trout had dusted him. Trout had dusted everyone. Is there anyone Trout hasn’t dusted? Look at yourself! You are covered in dust!
Three straight MVP-quality seasons have made Trout more than a competitor with Harper, they’ve made him the face of baseball (sorry, Eric Sogard!). Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Harper has trudged along at a good, if not great, level. Sure, he’s only 22 and playing in the majors when most of his peers are at Double-A, but at this point comparing him to the best player in baseball is just silliness. That competition is over. Or was over, it seemed, until two weeks ago.
On that Wednesday, Harper went 3-for-5 with three home runs. Since then he’s hit .535/.630/1.349 with 10 home runs and five strikeouts. Yes, his home run-to-strikeout ratio is 2:1. Yes, his slugging percentage starts with a number before the decimal. These are silly things done by a silly man who flaunts the realities of baseball before mashing them like a child playing with insects on a sidewalk. Harper’s binge has put him at 3.1 WAR on the season, 0.5 WAR ahead of second place Dee Gordon which is a weird thing to write, but whatever. You have to scroll down and scroll down and scroll down all… the… way… to… seventh before you find Trout languishing with just 2.0 WAR.
So this thing is back on, right? The match-up of the century that turned out as one-sided as the tortoise versus the hare, as Tyson versus Spinks, as boxing versus human decency, is, it turns out, not over after all. We’re all up in arms, screaming on talk radio, slamming our fat little fingers into the keys, all in excitement over Harper’s coming of age. And we should be excited about what he’s done. Harper has been legitimately amazing. But maybe we shouldn’t be quite so sure about it because he’s kinda done this before.
Consider: from April 17 through April 27 of 2013, Harper hit .455/.550/1.000 with four homers. From July 19 through August 2 of the same season, he hit .340/.377/.600 with three homers. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post outlines some more of these mini-hot streaks here. The reality is some times players string hits together and put up super-human slash lines. Harper’s slash line is silly now, but if the statistical revolution in baseball has taught us anything, it’s to beware of small sample sizes. It takes true talent to OPS almost 2.000 in a 12 game span.
But all this isn’t nearly enough to make up for three seasons where his chief rival was essentially the MVP (remember the dust thing?). Mike Trout has a .959 OPS — or, if you prefer meaningful numbers, a 164 wRC+ — over the past four seasons, so let’s all take what the kids call a chill pill.
But it’s so hard to take a chill pill! Did you see all those homers? We’ve been waiting so long for this! Also I hate pills! So let’s look a bit deeper.
One thing we have learned, and Jeff Sullivan touched on this in a piece here at FanGraphs three weeks ago, is that despite coaching and interviews focusing on hitting the ball the other way, Harper has been pulling the heck out of the ball. Jeff includes spray charts in his piece, so since this is a What Has Harper Done Since kind of piece, I feel obligated to follow up. Here are Harper’s up-to-date spray charts, first, all batted balls.
You can see the vast majority of his batted balls are going to right field. Now all his hits this season.
And now you can also see that, shockingly, the vast majority of his hits are going to right field as well. Shocking!
I spent some time going over his heat maps and you will be further shocked to learn he’s crushing the ball. [Pause for laughter.] More specifically, he is crushing the ball to right field. [Applause.] Which, that’s where the ball goes when a left-handed hitter pulls it. [Standing ovation.]
The strange thing is that, other than how Harper’s slugging percentage over the last two weeks begins with a “2”, most of his homers during this streak have come on outside pitches that he’s pulled. Some have been high, some low, but all have been right around the edge of the plate and almost all of them have ended up over the right-field wall. There’s a reason pitchers typically stay away from hitters with power: because it’s very difficult to pull a ball on the outside part of the plate. You’ve probably heard people talking about how hitters should learn to “go the other way” on outside pitches as a means to handle getting pitched that way. Harper isn’t having any of that. He’s hitting the outside pitches, but he’s pulling the heck out of them. And they’re going for home runs.
The other part of Harper’s success is his selectivity at the plate. Despite seeing far fewer pitches in the strike zone (40 percent) than the average hitter (48 percent), he’s not necessarily leaping at the strikes he does get. He is, in fact, swinging less. He’s swinging less at pitches in the zone and at pitches out of the zone than in previous seasons. This has led to a huge jump in walks (a point Boswell makes as well). Harper is walking 21.6% of the time compared to 9.6% last season — and, despite taking more pitches, Harper is striking out less than last season as well. But when he does swing, he hits more of the pitches at which he swings, and he’s hitting them harder on average. I’m going to posit that this is because he’s swinging at better pitches for him to hit.
It’s quite a combination when you put it all together. When you put it all together, it looks like what you’d picture it would look like if someone were to make a leap in approach, in power, in how to attack a pitcher, and in understanding of the strike zone all at once. Harper has had his hot streaks before, but they weren’t typically this controlled. Batters get hot and hit line drives around the park for reasons past our understanding. This happens. Sometimes those line drives even go out of the park. Sometimes a lot of them do. Sometimes players who do that have been named Bryce Harper. But often those streaks end up back where they came — namely, a respite from the player’s usual output, but not representative of anything greater than a short postponement of typical production. This, it doesn’t appear, is that. But it is 12 games. It might still be that.
People love to compare two great players and sometimes we get lucky in baseball and the universe gives us two players worthy of comparison at a young age. On the rare occasions when that happens, we get the privilege of watching them grow up together. Harper and Trout were to be one of those rare occasions. They were to be an amazing set of future Hall of Famers, players we could equal parts compare and marvel at as they aged, and as we aged. But then Trout took a step forward that Harper never took. For three years we’ve been wondering when and even if Bryce Harper would ever do the same. Maybe he finally has.