If You Meet Bryce Harper On the Road, Do Not Hang a Breaking Ball

Bryce Harper
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — When Bryce Harper sees a breaking ball middle-middle or middle-in, the most common outcome is not what you might think: He fouls it off. Over the course of the regular season, he saw 61 such pitches and hit 25 of them foul. Six others he took for strikes, nine more he swung at and missed, 11 others were hit in play for outs. Only two of those 61 balls went into the seats.

That still makes him one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters on such pitches. On breaking balls middle-middle and middle-in, he slugged an even 1.000 with an ISO of .524. This season, 161 hitters saw 750 or more pitches from the left side; Harper was 12th in wOBA, fifth in xwOBA, 16th in ISO, and tied for 11th in slugging percentage.

You don’t want to pitch him there. Because what if he doesn’t foul it off?

In the Phillies’ 10–2 win over the Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS, Harper saw 19 total pitches, 16 breaking balls. Three floated into the middle-middle or middle-in region. Sure enough, Harper fouled one of them off. The other two decided the game.

In Game 2 on Monday night in Cobb County, the Braves erased a late 4–0 Phillies lead, with Austin Riley homering in the eighth inning to put Atlanta up, 5–4. Harper led off the ninth with a walk, and when Nick Castellanos knocked what looked for all the world like a game-tying double to right center, he ran like hell to make sure he recorded that crucial run.

But Michael Harris II made a spectacular catch against the center field fence, and thanks to a heads-up play by Riley, Harper was doubled off to end the game. The Phillies, having gone through three and two-thirds postseason games without being seriously challenged, seemed to have awakened the sleeping giant. With the series headed back up north, would they regret not killing Atlanta off when they had the chance?

Castellanos thought not. “I think that the way the game ended in Atlanta was perfect, because I think that that jolt of emotion and kind of seeing them celebrate set the tone for this game,” he said after the game.

But it took time to reach that conclusion. In the top of the third, the Braves scored in their most characteristic fashion: Ronald Acuña Jr. doubled, then ran as hard as he could until he scored, much as Harper had tried to do two nights earlier. Ozzie Albies’ RBI single was the only seriously hard-hit ball Phillies starter Aaron Nola had allowed through three innings, but the Braves don’t need much of an opening to score piles of runs.

Atlanta’s starter, Bryce Elder, made the All-Star team in his first full MLB season, with a 2.97 ERA before the break. Afterward, he struggled, and his 5.11 second-half ERA gave manager Brian Snitker cause to obfuscate before naming Elder his Game 3 starter. He navigated the Phillies’ lineup well through two innings, but Castellanos led off the bottom of the third by taking a sinker in on his hands and poking a mortar shot into the left field seats to tie the game. Elder, unhittable through two innings, began to falter, bringing Harper to the plate with two on and two out in a tie game.

It’s hard for a starter to make his mark in baseball. You can’t demand the ball in crunch time and isolate a defender; you have to wait your turn. And those turns only come up four or five times a game, and forget about getting 25 carries or 11 three-point attempts. A tiny group of hitters can really create, conjuring big moments and generating offense. Acuña has played like that this year and even in this series, generating runs in Games 2 and 3 just through a will to get on base and aggressive, heads-up running.

But few players possess that gift as entirely as Harper does. When he came up with two on and two out in the third, game tied, and Elder on the verge of escaping a bumpy one-run inning as Nola had minutes before, a walk would’ve been of limited utility. He went for broke. He uncoiled on the first pitch of the at-bat, a sinker on the outside corner, and fouled it off. Shortly thereafter, he got what he was looking for: an overthrown 2–1 slider that lollygagged into the strike zone and died at belt-level.

Harper went for broke.

“He’s a Hall-of-Famer,” Snitker said after the game. “He’s one of those guys that loves that stage. He’s a special player. You put him in the spotlight, and he’s going to shine.”

“I don’t even want worry about the Hall of Fame, man,” Harper said. “I’m trying to win a championship, and I got a long ways to go before I’m even thought about for that. But anytime you’re able to go out there and put runs on the board for your team and win the game, that’s what it’s all about.”

Up 4–1 in the third inning with their no. 2 starter pitching well and backed by a fully-rested bullpen — that’s a good spot for the Phillies. It would be a comfortable one against almost any other team in the league, but Atlanta had just provided an object lesson in how quickly a multi-run lead can evaporate. The Phillies had let them off the mat once, and they would not make the same mistake twice.

“That was the message before the game: Put them out of it. Finish the job. Don’t let them climb back in the game,” said Brandon Marsh, who doubled and made an aggressive move to take third base up five runs in the fourth, then added a home run in the eighth. “Looking back at Game 2, we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again tonight, and that’s what we did.”

The Phillies never let their foot off the gas, tacking on two more two-out runs to chase Elder in the third. Harper’s next time up, he got a slow, looping sweeper from former teammate Brad Hand on a 1–1 count.

The home run off Elder was vintage Harper, a rocket into the second deck in right field; 15 of his 21 home runs this year were to the right of dead center, and 12 were classified as pull-side. The second was nearly identical to the first in terms of headline Statcast data, but it faded out to center field.

Bryce Harper’s Game 3 Home Runs
Pitcher Inning Exit Velo Launch Angle Distance
Bryce Elder 3 109.5 mph 34 deg. 408 ft.
Brad Hand 5 109.8 mph 35 deg. 414 ft.
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Harris, Harper’s tormentor from Game 2, looked for a moment like he was bound for another astounding catch, running full-speed into the center field fence and nearly tumbling over it. But the ball landed in the mulch and conifers in front of the batter’s eye; Harper had once again made magic.

Nola went 5 2/3 innings and allowed two runs. Four relievers followed, each allowing a single hit, but the Braves could not string enough baserunners together to do any damage.

“I think when a starting pitcher gets that big of a lead and the run support is awesome, right?” Nola said. “Especially against the Braves, we’ve faced them so many times, I really try to pitch like it’s 0–0. That’s kind of how you have to do that against this team, because they are pretty strong from one through nine in their order.”

But with the huge cushion to work with, Nola was able to tread water until the sixth inning, then hand it off to his bullpen. There isn’t such a thing as a low-pressure moment in the playoffs against an offense like Atlanta’s, but he got as close as you can get. And the Phillies got more good news when manager Rob Thomson was able to piece together the last three innings without spending too many bullets from his top relief arms. José Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman, and Craig Kimbrel all got the night off, and Seranthony Domínguez threw only 10 pitches, leaving Philadelphia’s entire high-leverage core rested for Game 4.

“Even if those guys pitched tonight, they’d be available tomorrow,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “But just given an extra day is better for them. And those added runs in the eighth inning were really big for us.”

But just in case, the Phillies’ offense added three more home runs after Harper’s second. Castellanos pitched in another dinger, followed by one each from Trea Turner and Marsh; those six homers tied a single-game postseason record. Not satisfied with his contribution, Harper just missed a third home run when he got under an AJ Smith-Shawver fastball in the seventh. The two-time MVP slammed his helmet down in frustration, but he’d already done more than enough.

Philadelphia’s 10-run outburst erased all memory of the frustrating end to Game 2. In the late innings, the Citizens Bank Park crowd chanted “We Want Strider,” which shows notable confidence, though given the choice they would surely face a less difficult pitcher with the chance to advance. Harper knows how difficult it will be to avoid a Game 5.

“Strider is tough, man,” Harper said of his Game 4 opponent. “He’s one of the best in baseball, possible Cy Young this year. I don’t know if I’ve ever said that about a pitcher.”

But the last time the two faced each other, he homered and scored both Phillies runs off Atlanta’s ace. A similar performance would likely secure a return to the NLCS for the Phillies; it’s up to Harper to rise to the moment once more.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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4 months ago

All sports are just some form or other of WWE, and the Phillies are The Rock in his prime. I don’t care how good the Braves are on paper, in this series they are at best equals because of the charisma this team has. They have managed make the Braves look puny and timid, and it is fantastic entertainment. The mlb must be praying for the Phillies to advance now that the rest of the field is so bleak

4 months ago

“I don’t care how good the Braves are on paper”

It’s not really “on paper” though, is it? The Braves were a historically great team over the course of 6 months. But even the best of teams can lose 3 out of 5 games. The playoffs are chaos.

4 months ago

Let’s ignore all facts and evidence on this analytics-driven site. The team I love just has it, and their opponent doesn’t…

4 months ago
Reply to  bender

Not a Phillies fan. But yes, go and play OOTP if you want to run a simulation

Antonio Bananas
4 months ago

I can’t win a world series there either.

Antonio Bananas
4 months ago

Everything is wrestling. Which is why wrestling is the most real thing there is because it’s honest about what it is.