Phillies — Putting Bryce Harper’s Slump in Perspective

In the month of May (52 plate appearances) Bryce Harper is hitting .167 with just one home run and five RBI’s, good for an .OPS of .613 — yikes.

As a result, Harper has faced ‘boos’ at Citizen’s Bank Park in recent nights, and radio callers and pundits have been quick to air their disappointment in the $330 million dollar man (third-of-a-billion-dollar-man?).

Harper’s struggles have been frustrating, there’s no denying that fact. But the truth is, it’s not as big of a deal as it’s being made out to be — as is often the case.

I’m hardly the first to call attention to this point, but this is what you get with Harper. He’s a streaky player by nature — and baseball is generally a streaky sport. If you’re going to take six homeruns, 20 RBIs, 23 walks, for an .OPS of .878 in one month (his April stats), you should be prepared for a slump or two throughout the season.

Is this slump worse than most? Without a doubt. But it’s not all that different from past slumps in his career. Last June he hit .188 (.675 OPS) with just two homeruns and nine RBIs. After the All-Star Break (mid-July), he hit .300 with an .OPS of .972.

It may be easy to get on Harper when he’s on pace for 200+ strikeouts on the season, but considering his track record, the reactions we’re hearing from some fans and pundits is premature. For perspective, his numbers on the season so far average out to an .OPS of .802 — the only qualifying player from last season who had an .OPS over .800 was Hoskins, and nobody else was close. His season as a whole has been a net-positive, between his power, ability to get on base, and take pressure off the lineup his value is undeniable.

Has it been worth a third of a billion dollars and thirteen years? Not quite, but again, two months doesn’t make a season — if history is any indication (and it usually is) then Harper will break out of this slump sooner or later and his numbers will begin to tick back toward his career averages, and likely above.

It’s also worth noting that many of the reasons for concern — strikeouts, swing-and-miss percentage — are being completely misperceived. Bryce would have told you heading into the season that both of those statistics would be career-highs in 2019; Kapler and Klentak would have told you that; I would have told you that.

Bryce’s approach at the plate is symbolic of a larger offensive trend in baseball — homeruns are the name of the game, and strikeouts aren’t as big of a deal as previously believed. Call it the “launch angle revolution” or define it however you want, but Harper has been pretty open in recent years about his desire to lift the ball into the air more, and at the end of the day, hit for more power.

Consider this from NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Bill Baer on Harper:

“Harper’s year-to-year declines in contact percentage have dipped by around the same amount. In 2016, his contact percentage was 79.1 percent, but dipped to 74.7 percent the next season, a 4.4 percent dip. It fell to 70.8 percent in 2018, a 3.9 percent fall. And this year’s 66.3 percent represents a 4.5 percent decline… At any rate, Harper’s 4.4 percent decline from 2016 to ’17 didn’t concern us because his OPS increased from .814 to 1.008. Why should this 4.4 percent decline in particular raise alarm bells if the others didn’t?”

This goes hand-in-hand with what I was saying earlier, Harper himself isn’t all that concerned with strikeouts, you could almost say it’s intentional. It would be a bigger concern if he wasn’t hitting the ball hard. But that’s not the case, Baer goes on to write:

“Harper’s hard-hit percentages since 2016 have been 34.1, 34.3, 42.3, and 41.1. His career average is 35.8 percent. I have been intentionally omitting Harper’s MVP season in 2015 because it was such an outlier, but he had a 40.9 hard-hit percentage that year. When Harper meets bat to ball, he’s hitting the ball as well as he did as an MVP.”

Not every underlying statistic has as positive of a spin however. One that concerns me in particular is his pull-% (the rate at which he hits the ball to the right side of the field). On the season, Harper is pulling 52.2% of balls he makes contact with. Compare that to his career average of 39.3% and therein lays the (a) problem.

It’s not a secret that every hitter is more successful when they’re hitting the baseball to all fields. Far and few between are the hitters who find more success by pulling the ball more, and any big leaguer who has made a career as a “dead pull” hitter, likely would have benefited from an “all fields” approach.

I’m no expert however, so take this hard evidence as proof. In relation to Harper’s pre and post-All Star slump that I previously alluded to, the Nationals hitting coach, Kevin Long, had this to say, “I thought Bryce got caught up in the launch angle stuff early in the season” and returned to the “boring line drives” later in the year (per MLB Network). As the season progressed, Harper’s pull-% dropped as well — hence the turnaround.

It’s pretty clear that Harper is trying to balance ‘lifting the ball in the air’ and ‘launch angle stuff’ with maintaining an ‘all-fields’ approach at the plate. This was the problem in 2018 — it’s a natural problem considering the changes he’s striving for — and it appears to be the problem this season as well. You can bet that as the season progresses Bryce will try to strike that balance and you’ll see his pull-% drop, at which point we’ll likely see his numbers rise across the board.

Beyond his production at the plate, however, Harper has had a major impact on the Phillies success. His influence and ability to take pressure off the lineup around him doesn’t need to be explained, he continues to get walked at a high-percentage (he’s on pace to set a career-high in walks), and he’s having the best defensive season of his career.

That last point is particularly important to remember. Based off data from Fan Graphs, his UZR/150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games) is the highest of his career at 23.1. This stat gauges the number of runs below or above average a fielder is at their position, per 150 games, and through 41 games this year Harper is setting a career high by a wide margin.

On Monday night he may have struck out three times, but he also made a pair of throws that prevented runners from advancing/scoring, and late in the game he made a diving catch that prevented the bases from clearing and the Brewers from taking the lead. He was irrelevant at the plate, but his presence was certainly felt elsewhere.

The silver lining through all of this is that despite Harper’s “struggles” (it’s all relative to his sky-high expectations) the Phillies are 24-17 and in first place in the NL East. If Harper is able to string together a few hot months of baseball (which he likely will) who knows what this offense and team are capable of.

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