Nationals' Bryce Harper's slow start: Turnaround coming?

Brian Garfinkel

Nats' prodigy Bryce Harper hasn't had the first half that many expected, thanks to injuries and ineffectiveness. His problems appear to stem from a little case of the whiffs, as well as a drop off in isolated power. Here's a deeper look.

It's been a frustrating first half for Nats' outfielder Bryce Harper. Chances are you already know that -- a .244/.316/.366 season line is just weird for a guy who, at age 19 and against the best baseball players on Earth, posted a 121 wRC+, then proceeded to outpace the league offensive output by 37% in his sophomore campaign (just 6th best among players 20 years or younger all time, behind some dudes named Trout, Rodriguez, Mantle, Kaline, and Robinson).

So how do you go from historic to huh? To be ridiculously over-simplistic: strikeouts and less power.

But these are results; what's with the process?

Strikeouts

First, when Harper is swinging this year, he's missing more often than ever (generally speaking), especially against breaking and off speed stuff:

This trend has backed his current 27% strikeout rate -- easily a (young career) high. So you'd think he's seeing an increased diet of breaking pitches, right? Surprisingly not. Hurlers are actually throwing him more hard stuff this year -- up from 55% in 2012 and 57.5% last season to over 60% this year.  With that has come a reduction in both breaking balls and off speed pitches.

It's actually sort of unclear to me why he's getting more fastballs.  Sure, I can imagine several reasons -- one of them is a declining ISO against the pitch -- but check out how his strikeouts are breaking down this year:

K%

Hard

Breaking

Off Speed

2012-2013

15.6%

37.2%

14.9%

2014

20.4%

48.3%

27.7%

Everything's up!  And it's pretty crazy to think that, this season, Harper is striking out almost half the time he's offered a two strike breaking ball. I can't find league averages by pitch type, but I'm guessing that's a bit high.

Of course, we've gone about 300 words without mentioning the Las Vegas-native's early-season thumb injury. You already know how this is going to look.

K%

Hard

Breaking

Off Speed

2014 Pre-DL

19.6%

33.3%

28.5%

2014 Post-DL

23.8%

66.6%

25.0%

We're not talking 2 out of 3 post-DL breaking balls strikeouts here -- he's K'ed 10 out of 15 times.  That's a bit of a rut.  Many think it's just a timing issue, which seems reasonable enough at first glance. Even on a second glance he seems fine; for example, note that his whiff profiles before and after his injury aren't dramatically different.

And then there's the swing percentage. Look at how much he's offering at low pitches since he came back on June 30, 2014 (on the right), as compared to the first month of the year (left).

Harper_swing_diff_pre_and_post_dl_medium

So, while a comparable whiff rate might not seem bad on the surface, when you increase your frequency of swings, you're increasing ineffectiveness. That hasn't been his only problem, though.

Power Outage

Like with the strikeouts, it's been a tale of pre-DL and post-DL performance for Harp. He's really been having a rough go since he returned to the team on the last day of June:

Harper_2014_slash_comp_medium

Like with his strikeout issues, this is a small sample -- he's only seen about 170 pitches since he's returned from injury, and history tells us his thump can't have (permanently) disappeared. Plus, he had enough juice to knock four out during his rehab assignments. And he's still hitting line drives at pretty good clip. Because of that, it's a little hard to seriously connect his thumb trouble to his struggles, at least as exclusively judged by the numbers.

But there's still some interesting information to consider. Look at this hit plot data thanks to Bill Petti's awesome spray chart tool. First, note the crazy drop in his run value (+8.4 per 100 batted balls before injury against -4.5 after) and batted ball distance for balls in play pre-DL (left, 185.5 feet) and post-DL (right, 158.9 feet):

Harper_-_pre_and_post_dl_batted_ball_dist_large

It's not all bad news here.  As his average angle of +5.4 pre-DL and +10.5 post-DL show -- negative angles are left field, while positive are right field, and zero is home plate to dead center -- he's not suddenly extremely pull happy, or late. That leads to the next point: why these results?

Looking at the Why

What the numbers bear out actually sounds a lot like what Matt Williams commented on in the article linked above.  Washington's skipper said,

"He’s close," manager Matt Williams said ahead of the last game in the Beltway series with the Orioles. "He popped the ball up last night and he was right on that one. He was right on the other pitches, too. The second at-bat last night was first pitch changeup. His path was good and his timing was good, it was just a changeup.

"It’s coming. I know he doesn’t want to hear that, but it really is coming."

Here's what Williams was talking about.  On July 9, 2014, the Nats were leading the O's 5-2 in the top of the fifth, with bases loaded. Harper, in his third at bat of the night, stepped up against Tommy Hunter in a hitters' count. He got a cut fastball drifting over the plate.  In most cases, this is crush time.  Not on this occasion:

Harper_just_miss_medium

Harper seems to have just caught it off the end of the bat, a touch too far ahead of Hunter's 95 MPH offering (I, for one, will never experience the same timing issues). Hunter's immediate post-pitch hop gives away his please-let-this-come-down-before-tomorrow optimism, ultimately rewarded. But being slightly ahead is the difference between a 300 foot flyout and a 400+ foot big fly.

Conclusions

It's rust.  Or, maybe not literally that, but something like it (timing works). Harper's strikeouts were a little up before hitting the DL, but that was still a pretty small sample.  Similarly, while his strike zone discipline isn't great right now -- more swings, less contact outside the zone -- his depressed batted ball distance just seems to be a temporary thing.

Just as importantly, he's sensing a turnaround, too: "'I feel a lot better at the plate. I'm seeing more pitches. I'm just trying to get comfortable. That's the main thing. Get comfortable, getting back into the rhythm and the routine of playing every single day,'" Harper recently told Bill Ladson. These things sound like non sequiturs in isolation, but every so often there is meat on the bones of such a narrative.

It's likely Harper had a much-needed chance to reflect on his approach and process while at home in Vegas over the All Star break. Assuming his thumb is truly healthy, there are no indicators to suggest his recent issues will persist through the stretch run, and all Nats fans should look forward to that.

Big thanks to Baseball Prospectus/Brooks Baseball, Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, and Bill Petti for statistics.

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