Bryce Harper’s Game 5 Home Run Was a Master Class in Hitting

Bryce Harper
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Some are calling it a legacy at-bat. I think it’s one of the most impressive displays of pitch-to-pitch adjustments I’ve ever seen in a postseason game. Whatever way you want to describe it, all that matters is Bryce Harper sent his team to the World Series after five games of leading the Phillies’ offense with fantastic, historic hitting. If he hadn’t already proved the worth of his contract with an MVP performance in 2021, he did in this series, chewing up Padres pitching with eight hits in 20 at-bats, including two home runs, three doubles, and five RBI.

I can go on about Harper’s postseason hitting forever, but for this piece, I want to focus on his at-bat against Robert Suarez that gave Philadelphia the lead in the bottom of the eighth inning of the series-clinching victory. Nobody was better suited for that moment than the reigning MVP; after each pitch, you could see him processing his swings, which he took a lot of, in preparation for the next one. If there is one thing a hitter needs in the postseason when facing elite pitching, it’s pitch-to-pitch adjustments. Allow me to guide you through how Harper made his.

Pitch 1

Hitters struggled mightily against Suarez’s sinker this year, with only a .139 batting average and not a single home run allowed. He typically attacks hitters with four-seam fastballs to start at-bats (47% of the time in 0–0 counts), but against Harper, he opted for the sinker, his best pitch by run value (-7). The movement on this sinker was just enough to dive under Harper’s barrel and give Suarez the advantage with an 0–1 count.

Pitch 2

It’s a reasonable strategy to try to get the aggressive Harper to chase at the top of the zone on 0–1. After his big hack on the previous pitch, Suarez and Austin Nola knew Harper was hunting any fastball in the zone. Unfortunately for Suarez, this one ran a bit too high and wasn’t quite at the eye level that hitters chase at the top of the zone.

Pitch 3

With a 1–1 count, Harper could have expected just about anything. Suarez wasn’t predictable in that situation all season, throwing his four-seamer and changeup around 30% of the time to lefties and the sinker just under 20%. The old adage still applies, however: Make the hitter hit your best.

This swing and pitch were almost nearly identical to the first of the at-bat: a sinker middle-away that ran and dove just enough to miss Harper’s barrel. This location was about an inch lower, though, and as a result, Harper got just a hair more of it. In terms of location, that’s an area that he handles quite well. Statcast labeled this pitch in zone 4 — the outer-middle third for left-handed hitters. Harper had a .548 wOBA on pitches in this zone in play during the regular season. If you let him get his hands extended, he will do damage.

That sinker put Suarez ahead in the count once again despite two quality swings from Harper. And while Suarez loves his changeup when ahead in the count against lefties, Harper had to be ready for anything.

Pitch 4

This is perfect execution by Suarez. If you’re going back to the four-seamer, make sure it’s on the edge or out of the zone. Harper is usually disciplined in this area, but he was in full protect mode in this at-bat; while he was a tick too late on the fastball, he let no borderline pitch go by and fouled off three straight offerings.

If you pay attention to the end of the clip, you see Harper take the top of his bottom hand and guide it towards the pitcher’s mound — an example of the hitter calculating the feel of their swing and using an internal cue to get themselves back on track. An internal cue is a saying and/or feel that a hitter uses to direct a specific body movement; each hitter has different cues that help them. Harper’s cue is feeling his bottom hand extend out so the barrel can make its way further in front of the plate. Heading into the repeat 1–2 count, Harper wanted to make this adjustment to catch up to the heater.

Pitch 5

Still only a foul ball, but it’s an improvement from the previous three swings. Harper shortened up, got his barrel head out further, and fouled this off to the left side rather than straight back. It was another well executed pitch from Suarez at the bottom of the zone, but as I noted earlier, Harper was in protect mode and would not let a close pitch sneak past him.

That’s two straight fastballs in 1–2 counts. This had to be the time for Suarez’s nasty changeup, right?

Pitch 6

At 91.5 mph, Suarez’s changeup had about six to seven mph of velocity separation from his fastballs in this at-bat. But that wasn’t enough for Harper to be fooled. Even in swing mode and despite a career-high chase rate of 35.5% this season, he saw this perfectly executed pitch well enough to spit on it with no hesitation. From Suarez’s point of view, this take is worrisome. Harper had been on the fastball enough the entire at-bat to warrant off-speed below the zone, but letting this pitch go by was a sign not to throw it again; if the next changeup lands in the strike zone, you’re in serious trouble.

Suarez didn’t have to go back to the heater, but if you’re truly reading swings and takes, there is no way you go back to the changeup. As this at-bat progressed, Harper only looked better. The sound move for Suarez was to go back to his best pitch and execute it as well as he could.

Pitch 7

Now that is a master class in hitting. At 98.9 mph, Suarez threw his fastest sinker of the at-bat, but six fastballs in seven pitches proved to be enough for Harper to feel his bottom hand get further out in the hitting zone and deliver a monumental swing and home run.

The very best hitters make pitch-to-pitch adjustments like we saw here from Harper. But not a single hitter in the sport was able to do what Harper did here: hit a home run off a Robert Suarez sinker. Much respect to one of the best hitters of this generation.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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1 year ago

this is an awesome piece, thank you!