How to Strike Out Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper’s at-bats have become events. Maybe more so than any other player in baseball, a Harper at-bat is the kind of thing that you set an alert for on MLB.TV so you can switch over to the Nationals’ feed when he comes up. He averaged more than four pitches per plate appearance last year, so you’re probably getting your money’s worth, and the allure of seeing a baseball hit 450 to center is ever present. A Harper at-bat is a spectacle, not only because of the raw power, but because of the craft.

I was one of those people keeping tabs on each Harper at-bat yesterday, except this time it wasn’t because I was enticed by the power. This time, it was because I wanted to see if he’d strike out. He did. Which is a pretty normal thing for baseball players to do. Except this time, it was noteworthy, because Harper hadn’t yet struck out this year. Entering the game, he was just one of two qualified hitters to have not yet K’d, and the other was Melky Cabrera, who never K’s. Cabrera’s offensive game is built around putting the bat on the ball, without much care for authority. Harper is all about authority, and it’s already been on display, which makes his strikeout-averse start to the season feel like it means more than Cabrera’s.

Harper went 21 plate appearances into the season without being sat down on strikes, a streak which lasted four games and then some. Last year, he only went four games without a strikeout once, and never beyond that. Last year’s streak lasted 22 place appearances. There was a 22-plate-appearance run in 2013. He didn’t set any personal records — though if you want to get technical, you could extend back to last year and say he actually went 28 consecutive plate appearances without a whiff — but it also means the first we’ve seen of Harper this year is, in this one particular way, Harper at his best. For a 23-year-old coming off a historic MVP season, that’s fun, because we spent the offseason wondering what he’d do next. Maybe it’s “never strike out.”

Strikeout rate is the quickest offensive outcome to stabilize, meaning, it’s the area in which we can say with more certainty that a player has changed his true-talent ability earlier than any other. Even then, strikeout rate doesn’t stabilize until around 60 plate appearances, and Harper is only at 23, so we’re barely a third of the way there. Yet, the forecasts have already changed somewhat to reflect his start. His rest-of-season projection, meaning the best estimation of his true-talent level, have already shaved his strikeout rate by half a percentage point. That’s small, but it’s something. Now, the projections believe Harper will finish 2016 with a career-best strikeout rate. Just one week ago, Harper was not projected to finish the season with a career-best strikeout rate. Even if he strikes out at a career-average rate starting tomorrow for the next 40 plate appearances, he’ll hit the 60 plate appearance mark with a strikeout rate around 15% — far smaller than we’ve seen from him or could have expected.

I’m not trying to make too much out of this — I’m well aware we’re five games into the season; nothing is definitive yet — I’m just saying, strikeout rate is the first thing we can look at for changes in a hitter’s true-talent ability, and thus far, Harper’s strikeout rate has been among baseball’s most positive outliers.

Pitchers tried, but for 21 plate appearances, they couldn’t do it. Bryce Harper wouldn’t let them strike him out. Since pitchers haven’t been able to figure what to do, at the very least we can see what not to do. Let’s use the process of elimination to see what the best method is for striking out Bryce Harper in 2016.

The first thing you’re gonna wanna do — you being an MLB pitcher with incentive to strike out Bryce Harper, in this case — is not put any pitches on the outer-half of the plate. That’s, like, step one of the “Pitching to Bryce Harper” handbook. Harper slugged .929 on contact against outer-half pitches last year, second-best in the baseball. Let Harper extend his arms, and you’re not going to like what comes of it. So, stay inside.

But maybe don’t stay inside with a fastball. Harper slugged .712 on fastballs last year — also second-best in baseball — and it’s not like just because his favorite pitch is the outside pitch that he can’t speed up the swing for the inside pitch. Bryan Morris got Harper to two strikes a few days ago and tried to come in with the fastball, and this happened:

So, two strikes: probably don’t wanna go fastball, definitely don’t wanna go outer-half, probably don’t wanna come inner-half, either.

OK. Guess that means offspeed stuff. Maybe a slider, low and away. That’s a go-to strikeout pitch. A tried-and-true classic. Except, Harper has one of the best batting eyes in baseball. Last year, his 19% walk rate was topped only by Joey Votto. This year, he’s walked in 30% of his plate appearances, more than anyone. He’s been ultra-selective with his swings this season, especially on pitches out of the zone. His O-Swing% is the second-best in baseball. So you’re probably not gonna get him to chase that slider in the dirt that other batters might chase, like Eric O’Flaherty tried to do last night once he got Harper to two strikes:

Harper won’t chase the slider in the dirt, but you also don’t want to put it anywhere near the strike zone, like Julio Teheran tried to do with two strikes on Opening Day:

Let’s regroup. Harper kills all fastballs, especially outside, but also inside too, so cross out all those with two strikes. Just ask Morris. Harper’s got maybe the best eye in baseball, so offspeed and breaking stuff in the dirt with two strikes is probably just a waste pitch; bring ’em into the strike zone and they crushed. Just ask Teheran. We’re running out of options here. Let’s just see how O’Flaherty did it last night.

First pitch was a sinker over the plate for strike one. Second pitch looked like this:

Little sinker, high, taken for ball one. O’Flaherty got Harper to swing through another elevated sinker after this, bringing the count to 1-2. The 1-2 pitch was shown above — that’s the slider in the dirt that Harper laid off. Then at 2-2, O’Flaherty gave Harper his first strikeout of the year, getting him to look at this pitch:

Wait, what?

*looks at 0-1 sinker taken for ball*

*looks at 2-2 sinker taken for strike*

Uh…

HarperFlaherty copy

Here’s the book on how to strike out Bryce Harper in 2016: no pitches away, no fastballs inside — no fastballs anywhere over the plate really — no breaking pitches in the dirt, no breaking pitches over the plate, get a called third strike on a pitch that was a ball two pitches ago. Seems easy enough. Good luck!





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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Ryan DCmember
6 years ago

The Nats announcers are always talking about how Bryce has a better eye for the strike zone than most umpires, and it was definitely true last night. The zone was wonky the whole game.