Unable to escape the gravitational pull of .500, the Nationals finally waved the white flag on Tuesday. They let Matt Adams return to the Cardinals via a waiver claim. They traded Daniel Murphy to the Cubs for “an exciting Class-A prospect,” according to general manager Mike Rizzo. They put Bryce Harper through waivers as well — all three of these players actually hit the wire on Friday — but while he was reportedly claimed by the Dodgers, his waiver period expired without a deal transpiring, meaning that he’s staying put. Alas, the novelty of seeing the 25-year-old slugger in a new uniform, and the buzz such a transaction would create, will have to wait.
Despite his 30 home runs (tied for second in the NL) and 91 walks (first), Harper’s age-25 season has been something of a disappointment. He’s hitting .246/.380/.511 for a 133 wRC+, the last figure significantly below both last year’s 156 and his career-best 197, set in his NL MVP-winning 2015 season. His fall-off, however, isn’t the reason the Nationals’ 2018 is down the tubes. From injuries to several key players (Murphy, Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman) to replacement-level-ish production from their catchers (-0.1 WAR) and bullpen (0.8 WAR), to questionable management by rookie skipper Dave Martinez, there are no shortage of reasons why the Nationals reached this stage and no shortage of fingers to point. It’s true that had Harper been more productive before July 31, perhaps by a couple of wins, Rizzo could have taken a more aggressive approach at the deadline, shoring up a weakness or two on a 54-51 team that was 3.5 games out of both a Wild Card spot and the NL East lead instead of shrugging his shoulders at a 52-53 squad. We’ll never know.
The Nationals are doomed, but Harper has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball in recent weeks, in stark contrast to the first few months of the season. Here’s a breakdown, using the All-Star break as the divider:
So much for the Home Run Derby Curse, right? Harper’s 187 wRC+ in the second half trails only Ronald Acuña and Matt Carpenter’s marks among qualified NL hitters. This is the beast we saw in 2015 and during the first couple weeks of the season, the one who homered eight times in his first 17 games while batting .315/.487/.778 (214 wRC+) and looking as though any potential free-agent suitor would have to offer him an entire country to sign.
Since the break, Harper’s off-the-charts BABIP ranks first in the NL, his on-base percentage second, his slugging percentage sixth, and his WAR tied for fourth alongside Paul Goldschmidt and David Peralta — behind Acuña, Carpeter, and Christian Yelich. The value he’s created over that 28-game stretch, which prorates to an 8.7-WAR season, matches what he managed over his first 94 games.
So, what is Harper doing differently? Basically, he’s reversed several unflattering trends that I highlighted in my early June examination of his season.
More Contact, Less Chasing
At the time I profiled him, Harper was in the midst of a five-week stretch during which he swung at 32.7% of pitches outside the strike zone, a couple points above his career mark and 8.2 points above his ultra-selective March/April period. The split between his first and second halves isn’t that drastic, but it’s an improvement:
Harper’s overall swing rate is virtually unchanged from half to half (46.4% versus 46.6%), but he’s chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, swinging at and making contact with more strikes, and whiffing with less frequency — though, as noted in the previous table, his strikeout and walk rates have eroded relative to the first half, particularly as he’s gotten further distance from a March/April period during which he walked 38 times in 121 plate appearances (31.4%).
In June, I noted that Harper had been particularly flummoxed by sliders, whiffing on a career-high 21.7%. That rate is now down to 17.9%, and his rate against cutters has fallen from 20.0% to 17.3%. That said, those two pitch types only account for 20.9% of the pitches Harper has seen, and he’s still got double-digit whiff rates against four-seamers (a career-high 11.3%) and sinkers (10.3%), which together account for 52.6% of the pitches he’s seen.
Via both his batted-ball stats and his Statcast numbers, Harper is hitting the ball harder, with fewer grounders and more line drives:
While his groundball-to-flyball ratio has risen (from 1.0 in the first half to 1.13 in the second) and his average launch angle has fallen, Harper is actually hitting more line drives. His xwOBA has risen only sightly, but his wOBA has gone up by more than 100 points, which has something to do with him…
Beating the Shift
When I checked in on him, Harper was pulling the ball at a career-high 46.4% clip. That had fallen slightly by the time of the All-Star break, but since then, he’s done a much better job of using the whole field. Check out the pretty colors:
Harper has cut his pull percentage by 7.5 points (from 44.6% to 37.1%) and raised his opposite-field percentage by 5.4 points (from 26.0 to 31.4%). That’s of particular importance, because at the time of my profile, he was also being shifted against at a career-high clip of 46.1%. Updating the table, here’s where he’s at:
|Season||Tot PA||Shift PA||Shift %||BABIP||wRC+|
As I don’t have the 2018 breakdown by half, I’ve left the data circa early June in its own shaded row. As you can see, Harper’s overall BABIP on shifts has risen by 48 points; by my math, it has taken something on the order of a .330 BABIP in the time since that was written. His wRC+ when facing the shift has more than doubled.
Including the walks and homers that Harper has drawn against the shift — something that Statcast now records — Harper’s wOBA against the shift has risen from .347 in the first half to .443 in the second. That’s despite just two of his seven second-half homers coming when the shift was deployed, compared to 16 of 23 in the first half. Whether consciously or not, he’s not just hammering the ball out of the park when the shift is on, he’s hitting it all over the place.
All of this speaks to a much-improved approach by Harper relative to the first half, or at least a strong corrective for the bad habits that plagued him. It hasn’t been enough to save the Nationals’ season, but that was always an unreasonable expectation. No matter what he did, it couldn’t be enough to cover for the simultaneous absences of Eaton, Murphy, and Rendon (or Eaton, Murphy, Zimmerman, and Matt Wieters). The 2018 season probably wont go down as one of Harper’s best — and that’s without even discussing his career-worst defensive metrics (-8.1 UZR, -17 DRS) — nonetheless, the Harper that we’ve seen over the past month looks likely to quell many of the concerns potential suitors might have during free agency. And while I haven’t asked Dan Szymborski to re-run his projections of Harper’s value, I’m guessing the numbers would show that he’s clawed back most of the $30 million drop in value projected by ZiPS over the next eight seasons.
While a trade of Harper never seemed like a strong possibility, the club’s decision to retain him despite the current circumstances does change the complexion of this coming winter. Had Harper been dealt elsewhere, he would have gotten a basis for comparison as to just how dysfunctional the Nationals’ organization has become, perhaps increasing the likelihood that he would sign elsewhere. Now that he’s twice expressed his satisfaction with staying, even to face long odds, one has to wonder if he feels obligated to stick around due to the sense that there’s unfinished business — namely, a team that has yet to win a postseason series despite four trips to the postseason in six years. Even when he’s playing out the string, Bryce Harper remains fascinating.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.