Bryce Harper’s Laser-like Focus

Bryce Harper struck out twice yesterday. It was notable not because a two strikeout game is an unusual feat for Harper–he’s struck out twice in a game 137 times. What made yesterday’s game notable was that Harper did not strike out at all in his first five games. In those first five games, Harper also hit four home runs. The last player to hit four home runs in his team’s first five games without striking out was Barry Bonds in 2003. Bonds actually hit five homers, but other than Bonds, nobody else has done what Harper just did in the last 30 seasons. It’s safe to say, he’s locked in.

After 29 plate appearances, Harper has four homers, two singles, nine walks, and 14 outs, with his two from yesterday coming via the strikeout. In the very early going, Harper’s wRC+ is 247, and that’s with a BABIP of just .143. That’s really good, although not out of the ordinary given that Harper put up a 197 wRC+ over the course of the 2015 season. So far, Harper has done a good job swinging at strikes and not swinging at balls. For his career, Harper has swung at 31% of pitches outside the zone and 73% of pitches in the zone. This year, Harper is chasing just 20% of pitches outside the zone, and when he gets a strike, he’s ripping it 82% of the time.

The list below is illustrative of what has happened so far. It likely has little bearing on what will happen in the future, but it shows how Harper’s plate discipline compares to the rest of baseball this season.

Biggest Difference in O-Swing% and Z-Swing% in 2018
Name Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Difference
Joey Votto Reds 14.3 80.8 66.5
Matt Joyce Athletics 17.7 84.2 66.5
Josh Bell Pirates 28.9 92 63.1
Ryan Flaherty Braves 14.6 76.7 62.1
Bryce Harper Nationals 19.7 81.6 61.9
Scott Schebler Reds 34.5 94.7 60.2
Colin Moran Pirates 20 78.3 58.3
Matt Duffy Rays 19.4 77.1 57.7
Alex Gordon Royals 15.4 72.4 57
Jason Heyward Cubs 23.1 79.3 56.2
Corey Seager Dodgers 27.1 82.1 55
Starlin Castro Marlins 19.5 74 54.5
Kris Bryant Cubs 23 77.5 54.5
J.D. Martinez Red Sox 27.3 81 53.7
Jed Lowrie Athletics 25.9 78.7 52.8

We have a mix of hitters here, but for the most part, it is probably better to be on this list than not on it. To help understand what is going on with Harper, we will look at a series of pitch maps from Harper’s first five games. The graph below, with data from Baseball Savant, shows the pitches Harper laid off. For the pitches he took in the zone, I have also indicated the count when the pitch was thrown.

Harper has opted not to swing at 56 of the pitches he’s seen this year. Of those pitches, just seven were called strikes, with one more called a ball that might have been a strike. Two of the strikes were off-speed pitches at the corner or just off it. Of the other five pitches, all occurred with no strikes, with three of the five coming on 3-0 counts. This tells us that Bryce Harper is rarely taking pitches in the strike zone.

The next one shows all of Harper’s swings.

There’s maybe one or two pitches that are really out of the strike zone. The one on the bottom is a knuckle curve from Homer Bailey. The one on the outside is a fastball from Sal Romano. Every other pitch is in the strike zone or pretty close. The pink ones are the swinging strikes, and there aren’t very many, but it does look like there are a few on the top of the zone. Let’s look at Harper’s whiffs to see if we can learn something there.

If there are pitchers hoping to sneak a first-pitch strike past Harper, it doesn’t appear to be a very good idea. Much is made of hitters not trying to avoid the strikeout by putting the ball in play with two strikes, thereby increasing strikeout totals. Strike one appears not to worry Harper, as he opts to take big swings on the first pitch of an at bat to ensure he isn’t losing the opportunity to do damage on a hittable pitch. Of Harper’s four homers, two have occurred on the first pitch.

If Harper has shown a flaw this season, it has been on the high fastball. Six of the ten whiffs above are fastballs at the top of the zone or above. Yesterday, he added eight swinging strikes to his season, nearly as many as he had in his first five games. Six of those eight whiffs came on fastballs in the middle of the strike zone or higher. It certainly helps if you have the fastball of Mike Foltynewicz, as seen below.

Foltynewicz got Harper again for his second strikeout, this time not quite as high in the zone.

For his career, Harper has been much less dangerous higher in the strike zone. The heat map below shows where he has swung at pitches since 2014. Note that up in the strike zone and just above it have seen nearly as many swings as the middle of the strike zone, and as many as at the bottom of the zone.

Now let’s look at a similar heat map, but with this map instead showing Harper’s Runs Above Average per 100 pitches.

Like most batters, Harper does his damage in the middle of the zone, but as the ball creeps higher, he produces less. Pitching high and hard isn’t a strategy all pitchers have the arsenal to execute. It isn’t a strategy for a pitcher with faulty command, as missing by a few inches down can mean a home run. It’s also a strategy Harper might eventually adjust to if he sees a lot more pitches there. But right now, that’s the only place anywhere near the strike zone a pitcher can throw to Harper if he wants to avoid a walk or a hard hit ball. Miss a little low and…

Harper is off to a great start this season, and his projected WAR has already moved from 5.6 to 6.3. He’s a great player and looks to be on his way to a great season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

Takeaways from this article
1. Votto is Votto
2. We should probably pay more attention to Mike Foltynewicz
3. As a Pirates fan, I sure hope Josh Bell stays on this list come September

5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Foltynewicz is maddening. He has games where he does this to Harper, followed by games where he doesn’t look like he belongs in the Majors.

5 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

The second inning of yesterdays game was a perfect example of the duality of Folty. 2 Ks in the first inning, then starts off the second with a hit batter and a wild pitch. Even when he’s on, he still shows flashes of what makes him so frustrating from the perspective of a Braves fan.

5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

I love that in such a small sample for Votto, his normal swing splits still play out.

formerly matt w
5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Not too surprising to see Josh Bell on the list but I reeeally hope Colin Moran stays on it.