Clayton Kershaw’s Contribution to Bryce Harper’s Slump

Before homering last night in the first inning of a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers, Bryce Harper’s OPS had briefly fallen all the way below .900. And while that might seem like occasion to sound the alarms, let’s get one thing straight: Bryce Harper’s season numbers are still great. His OBP is still above .400, his power’s still been immense, and by wRC+, he’s still had as good a year as Nolan Arenado and the Seager boys.

But lately, things haven’t been right for the reigning MVP. A couple months ago, we had a post here on the site about how Harper was catching up to Mike Trout, and it was totally reasonable. And it still probably is, but over the last 30 days, Harper’s wRC+ is 80, his OBP the same as what Andrelton Simmons did last year, and he’s hit for as much power during that stretch as 2015 Kevin Pillar. It’s the most underwhelming Harper’s looked since the middle of 2014:

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 9.00.57 PM

Y’know what’s not an ideal way to break out of a slump? Face Clayton Kershaw. Harper did that on Monday night, and he did not break out of the slump. No, he faced Kershaw three times, and he fanned three times.

Even with the recent slide, Harper’s still viewed as the best hitter in world, and the best hitter in the world facing the best pitcher in the world is always worth an examination. But there’s something about this particular matchup at this particular time that makes it all the more fascinating. See, something’s been happening to Harper lately. Rather, something’s been happening to the way Harper’s being pitched lately.

Last year, Harper had the very highest slugging percentage on outer-half and beyond pitches of any left-handed hitter. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, seeing as Harper had the highest slugging percentage of all batters on all pitches, but the outer-half was where he truly thrived. When Harper went 21 at-bats without a strikeout to begin the season, I wrote up a tongue-in-cheek guide on how to strike him out, and Rule No. 1 was to not throw pitches on the outer half.

Evidently, pitchers disagree with me.

Highest rate of outer-half and beyond pitches seen, 2016

  1. Bryce Harper, 70.5%
  2. Joe Panik, 70.2%
  3. Stephen Vogt, 70.1%
  4. Prince Fielder, 68.9%
  5. Kyle Seager, 68.4%

Harper’s seen the very highest rate of outer-half and beyond pitches of any qualified hitter in baseball this season. And it hasn’t always been this way:

HarperRoll

Lately, Harper’s seen the highest rate of outer-half and beyond pitches of his career. Evidently, pitchers see something. For what it’s worth, a Nationals fan in my most recent chat mentioned Harper looking off balance on outer-half swings. His slugging percentage on outer-half pitches this season is essentially indistinguishable from the inner-half, but slugging percentage isn’t everything, and hitters know when Harper looks comfortable and when he doesn’t. The numbers seem to suggest the outer-half is when he doesn’t.

And here’s where it gets real interesting, as far as the Harper-Kershaw matchup goes. Harper’s seeing more outside pitches than anybody. And Kershaw? Kershaw throws more inside pitches than just about anybody.

Highest rate of inner-half and beyond pitches thrown, 2016

  1. Derek Holland, 63.2%
  2. Clayton Kershaw, 57.5%
  3. Matt Moore, 56.1%
  4. Cole Hamels, 55.3%
  5. Jeff Locke, 53.8%

So, Derek Holland’s worth mentioning, and I’ll probably do that later this week, but there’s Kershaw, throwing the second-highest rate of inside pitches of any qualified starter in the game. Right where no one’s been putting them against Harper.

The best pitcher on the planet on the best tear of his life likes to throw inside. The best hitter on the planet during his worst slump in years has been seeing nothing but pitches on the outside. Something’s got to give. Does Kershaw stick with what makes him Kershaw? Does he exploit Harper’s perceived shortcoming? The results couldn’t not be interesting.

In the first showdown, Kershaw struck out Harper on four pitches. Those pitches:

Harper1

The yellow line represents the rough center of the plate, which admittedly isn’t perfect due to the camera angle. But, it’s close. And A.J. Ellis‘ glove is set up on the outer-half of the plate on every pitch. Kershaw executes every pitch, because that’s what he does, and Harper goes down swinging on a 90-mph slider off the plate.

The second at-bat:

Harper2

Five yellow lines. Five gloves to the right of that line. The best pitcher in the world, the one who’s the best pitcher in the world in part because of how often he throws inside, has set up outside against Bryce Harper nine times in nine offerings. Harper goes down swinging again.

Let’s do .gifs for at-bat number three.

The first pitch:

Set up outside. Kershaw just barely misses with the slider, but evidently isn’t deterred, because he and Ellis decide on the exact same pitch to get back into the count:

No need to change the pitch or come inside when you can just micro-correct your previous mistake. Kershaw scoots the slider in a couple inches and gets the call.

Pitch three:

It’s a fastball, set up on the outside and spotted perfectly on the outside. Harper swings through it, and it’s not a particularly intimidating swing. It’s the kind of swing that probably tells a pitcher to throw that same pitch again. Although, who are we kidding? That’s the 12th pitch Kershaw threw Harper, and on all 12, the glove was set up on the outer-half. Harper knew what was coming next. We should all know what’s coming next.

There’s that off-balance swing to which the chat commenter referred. And there’s 13 Kershaw pitches against Harper, and on every single one of them, the second-most inside-reliant pitcher in the game, the one who doesn’t need to change anything for anyone, set up outside. In all, Harper saw 17 pitches for the night, and 13 of them ended up outside.

I don’t know whether this says more about Harper, or more about Kershaw. Usually, you hear pitchers wanting to stick to what makes them successful. Here, the script flipped. It might not be that the book is out on Bryce Harper — there may never be a full book on how to beat him — but a chapter’s being written. And on Monday night in Los Angeles, Clayton Kershaw wrote three more pages.

We hoped you liked reading Clayton Kershaw’s Contribution to Bryce Harper’s Slump by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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stealthstephen
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stealthstephen

Loved the article. Probably should be edited to reflect that Grandal was the catcher for all three plate appearances. Otherwise great work though.