Bryce Harper’s Quiet Reversal

I think we’ve established by now that it’s the year of Bryce Harper. He’s the current major-league leader in Wins Above Replacement, and in case you’re not a real big fan of WAR, Harper’s also the leader in wRC+, and wOBA, and slugging percentage. This is the year we’ve been waiting for, and this is the year that makes it exponentially less silly to draw comparisons between Harper and Mike Trout. This healthy version of Harper has climbed within sight of his ceiling, and he’s still 22 years old. He’s younger than Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler, and Noah Syndergaard. Harper-is-young facts are the oldest of hats, but then, they’re almost as old as Bryce Harper, who is young.

Harper’s been written about. We’ve all taken our turns, digging into his breakout that at this point appears undeniable. No one would dare pass up an opportunity to get into detail on baseball’s newest emerging superstar, so by now you should consider yourself mostly informed. Yet now I feel like there’s more that needs to be added. Since getting hot, Harper hasn’t really cooled off. He has, however, changed what he’s been doing. You could say he’s performed more like himself.

As the season began, Harper found himself pulling the ball, and pulling the ball for power. He was hitting for incredible, tremendous power, but he’d never really been that much of a pull hitter, so it seemed like a potential key behind his emergence. Eno was given the opportunity to talk to Harper himself. On the subject, a few Harper responses:

“I don’t like pulling the ball,” claimed Harper[…]

“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.”

It was definitely interesting at the time — here was a guy having more success pulling the ball than maybe anyone, and he talked about how he wanted to go up the middle and the other way. One might’ve said Harper was just in denial about what was working so well, but it’s probably a good thing one didn’t say that, because, the early-season Harper? That Harper’s more recently been replaced by what we might call the Bryce Harper Ideal.

For comparison, we need endpoints. Endpoints tend to be arbitrary, but, what the hell, let’s split Harper’s season in the middle of May. It’s not clean, but it’ll do. Images come courtesy of Baseball Savant. Harper’s spray charts, through May 15 and since May 16:

It’s like two different hitters. You start with a guy with power to right and right-center. You end up with a guy with power to left and left-center. Of course, with anything based on small samples, you’re going to get the influence of noise, but spray charts are mostly up to the hitter, and the way you hit is the way you hit. Harper’s been hitting more like he says he wants to, and that’s especially true with fastballs:

It follows what you see above. Harper, more recently, has stayed back on the fastballs, instead of jumping at them. He’s hit them straight, and he’s hit them the other way. A part of this — different locations of fastballs that Harper has hit fair.

Instead of turning on so many inside fastballs, Harper’s waited on those fastballs away that he likes so much. And he’s also gone with what they’ve given him, trying less to yank those fastballs away. He has the power to do damage on those pitches, with just a flick of the wrists. And Bryce Harper’s swing is never just a flick of the wrists.

To put this in numerical terms:

Through May 15

Pull%: 51%
Oppo%: 15%

Since May 16

Pull%: 33%
Oppo%: 35%

So it’s funny what’s happened. If you look at Harper’s batting average on balls in play, it’s lost almost 30 points from the first month and a half. More recently it resembles something you’d expect normally from a strong and talented hitter. But Harper’s wRC+ since the middle of May is 225, against 205 up to that point. He’s gotten better, not worse, and it’s pretty easy to figure out how — Harper has cut his strikeout rate in half. In fact, since May 10, Harper has 22 walks and 12 strikeouts. Even the on-fire version of Harper has found a way to improve.

You can draw the following link: early on, Harper was pulling pitches he could pull. That allowed him to do a lot of damage, but it also made it more difficult for him to maintain perfect timing. If he was trying to pull a fastball, he might’ve had trouble with something slower, or a fastball away. If he was trying to pull a fastball away, maybe he’d pull a fastball inside foul. Now, Harper’s sitting back a moment longer on fastballs. When he gets a fastball away, he wants to hit it toward left-center. He can hit home runs on those pitches, and that also means, if he’s out in front, he could pull something softer. He can hit home runs on those pitches. Harper now is what he wants to be: an all-fields hitter, who’s mostly a left-and-center hitter. He was plenty good early on, but now he’s more complete, more prepared to hit anyone he might face. This version of Harper isn’t perfect, but for a perfectionist, it’s at least a positive step, when taking another positive step seemed impossible.

In the middle of his best season, Bryce Harper found the approach he was looking for. Only now might he be something closer to satisfied.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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John Thacker
7 years ago

My favorite Bryce Harper-is-young fact from this year is that yesterday was the first time he had faced a pitcher younger than he was.

7 years ago
Reply to  John Thacker

My favorite Bryce Harper fact is that his hitting ability, fame, and sex-making ability is merely second in his family to Banknotes Harper.

7 years ago
Reply to  Paul

You forgot Pounding.

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago
Reply to  John Thacker

(since high school)

7 years ago
Reply to  John Thacker

My favorite Bryce Harper fact is that he has now faced a pitcher younger than himself and I won’t have to hear about this fact eleventy times a day anymore.