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Discipline and contact rate fueling Bryce Harper's surge

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Over the first month of the season, we heard repeated updates about Bryce Harper's rising walk rate. Over the past twelve days, we've heard a lot more about his power and overall production. The two often go hand in hand.....

National pundits often talk about how Bryce Harper is immature.  My advice to them: Watch him take a plate appearance or two.
National pundits often talk about how Bryce Harper is immature. My advice to them: Watch him take a plate appearance or two.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On May 5, Bryce Harper went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts in a 2-1 loss to the Miami Marlins.  The Washington Nationals slugger was slumping, having gone just 1 for 17 with six strikeouts and four walks in the first five days of May.  His season numbers had "slipped" to .245/.407/.457.  While the OBP was great and the .202 ISO was about what we've come to expect from Harper, we started hearing some nonsense about how he was never going to hit for enough average to be a complete player.  Blah, blah, blah.....

In the twelve days since, Harper has gone 18 for 39 with 9 HR, 3 doubles, a triple, 22 RBI, 10 walks, and 3 strikeouts.  He's had eight multi-hit games in the past twelve days.  Four of those have been three hit games.  He's raised his season triple slash line to .338/.476/.729.  He's raised his May triple slash line to .411/.529/.982, ridiculous numbers considering that he began the month 1 for 17.  Harper has a .610 wOBA and 290 wRC+ this month!  He has a .496 wOBA and 215 wRC+ for the year so far.  He's been 115% better than a league average hitter so far this season!

How is he doing this?  If you believe something that Harper said over the weekend, it's primarily due to him being healthy.

"This is what I was like in high school and college," said Harper, who twice had four-homer games at the College of Southern Nevada, where he hit 31 homers in 66 games in 2010. "That’s what people don’t understand. I was healthy. Staying healthy is what I need to do. This is the type of player I need to be and the type of player I want to be. Everybody talks about how I’m doing this different or I’m doing that different. There’s nothing different. It’s staying healthy and staying in the lineup. Truly."

That's certainly part of what's driven Harper this season.  The 22-year-old missed significant time in each of the past two seasons due to injury.  He dealt with both knee and hip injuries in 2013.  He tore a ligament in his thumb last season sliding head first into third on a triple.  Not only did those injuries end up costing Harper 106 games over the past two seasons, but they could have limited his effectiveness a bit even when he returned.  Specifically with last season's injury, it's quite a bit more difficult for a hitter to strike the ball with as much authority when his hands are less than 100%.

Still, the fact that Harper is healthy isn't the only thing that's driving this breakout*.  His approach was always pretty strong in the past, but it's never been quite where it is right now.  Harper has drawn just two fewer walks than he did in the entire 2014 season (100 games/395 PA) through just 39 games and 170 plate appearances.  His walk rate has shot up from 9.6% last season (11.5% career rate) to 21.2% so far in 2015.

*Can we say that a guy who was already a really good hitter is breaking out?  This does seem to be a new level of dominance

Those who aren't big supporters of the sabermetrics movement and think that OBP is a statistic that gets too much play with respect to batting average often overlook one key fact.  When a player is drawing a lot of walks, it usually means that he's chasing less bad pitches to swing at.  One look at Harper's plate discipline numbers at Fangraphs will show us that this has been the case for Harper so far this season.

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2012 34.9% 74.6% 50.2% 63.2% 86.0% 76.3% 38.6% 59.0% 11.8%
2013 34.1% 74.8% 49.3% 65.5% 86.1% 77.2% 37.3% 57.6% 11.0%
2014 35.7% 75.5% 51.2% 59.0% 82.9% 72.7% 38.8% 61.0% 13.8%
2015 29.7% 69.4% 44.6% 63.3% 88.3% 77.9% 37.5% 56.5% 9.5%
Total 34.3% 74.3% 49.5% 62.9% 85.5% 75.8% 38.1% 58.8% 11.8%

Let's note that his O-Swing% is six points lower than it was last season and 4.6% lower than it has been throughout his career.  That adage that we keep hearing from Bob & F.P. every night that it's not a strike if Harper isn't swinging at it certainly seems to be less of an exaggeration than you would think.  Cutting that chase percentage down is not only helping to lead to a spike in walks, though.  It also means that when he avoids chasing (particularly with two strikes), he's giving himself another chance to get a pitch in the zone that he can do more with.

Harper is also swinging at less pitches within the zone, but that's not always a bad thing.  Not all pitches that are thrown within the strike zone are pitches that a hitter is going to be able to drive.  Harper's ability to spit on strikes that he's not going to be able to do anything with is helping him conclude his plate appearances with better pitches to hit as well.  Again, this is a byproduct of him not chasing pitches out of the zone.  This gives him more opportunities to try and make sure that the pitcher comes to him and allows Harper to dictate the at bat.  When a hitter isn't giving away strikes by chasing junk out of the zone, it can help him avoid having to shift to a defensive mode because there are two strikes on him.

We'll also note that Harper's zone contact rate is a career best 88.3%.  When he does choose to swing, he's putting the ball in play more often than he ever has before.  This is likely a byproduct of him swinging less often and focusing on swinging at pitches that he wants to hit.  When hitters are doing that, they're not only more likely to make contact, but they're more likely to make better contact.  Bryce has been making a lot of good contact lately.

We're going to conclude this with a look at one at bat from Harper over the weekend.  I'd love to find a gif or video that would show it, but this didn't make the highlight package.  Instead, we're going to have to settle for the strike zone plot from Brooks Baseball.

Let's set the situation up.  The Nats are already leading 1-0 in the first inning against Andrew Cashner.  Yunel Escobar is standing on second with one out in the inning.  Harper steps in against the hard-throwing Cashner, who has been known to touch 100 on occasion.

Pitch 1: 96 MPH fastball runs back to the inside corner

Good pitch to start the AB from Cashner.  Harper just watches it go by on the inner half and falls behind 0-1

Pitch 2: 96 MPH two-seam fastball down the middle

Cashner didn't locate this where he wanted, but it had ridiculous movement for 96.  Harper is a little late and gets under it, fouling it back into the seats on the third base side

Pitch 3: 97 MPH fastball up on the inner half

With an 0-2 count, Cashner goes out of the zone and tries to get Harper to chase.  The focus on the inner half of the plate and the height of the pitch are both also being used to set Harper up for later in the at bat.  Cashner probably wants to get him out down and away.  Harper lays off to get back in the count a bit.

Pitch 4: 97 MPH fastball inside and at the ankles

Again, kind of a setup pitch.  Cashner did run his two-seamer over the plate for each of the first two strikes, so that run back action on his fastball has to be in the back of Harper's mind.  This is maybe the easiest take for Harper in the at bat, though, as he has to back away to avoid being hit in the shin.

Pitch 5: 82 MPH curveball over the middle and at the shins

This is likely the pitch that Cashner was trying to set Harper up for, though he might have wanted it a little more away.  Harper does swing over the top of it, but just gets a piece and fouls it back.

Pitch 6: 97 MPH fastball on the outside corner

Harper's protecting a bit now.  He takes a late, short swing and fouls it off down the third base line.

Pitch 7: 97 MPH two-seam fastball at the top of the zone

Harper gets a bit more aggressive on his swing here, but he gets under it and pops it up straight behind the plate.  It finds the seats

Pitch 8: 87 MPH slider that bounces in front of home plate

It didn't really require great discipline to lay off of this one.  Cashner just held it too long.  However, Harper has now fouled off three two strike pitches and run the count full after falling behind Cashner 0-2.

Pitch 9: 98 MPH fastball just off the inside edge

Harper is all over this pitch.  It was just off the inside corner, so it was definitely close enough so that Harper needed to protect with two strikes.  Also, with the run that Cashner's fastball had been showing throughout the at bat, there had to be some concern about it coming back and hitting the inside corner.  Harper was out in front (again, 98 MPH) and drills it into the stands behind first base for his fifth foul ball of the at bat (fourth with two strikes).

Pitch 10: 87 MPH changeup over the heart of the plate

Cashner and Austin Hedges' thought process here might be that Harper was just way out in front of 98, so they tried to change speeds and attack him with a sure strike.  Harper isn't fooled, waits on the pitch, and rips it into right field for a single.

What?  You thought I was going to use a home run? Harper fell behind 0-2.  He fouled off a handful of nasty pitches.  He skillfully worked his way back into the count to run it full.  He confidently attacked the 3-2 changeup after Cashner had thrown seven pitches of 96 MPH or faster throughout the at bat.  It was a tremendous at bat, even if it did end up being just a lousy single.

Bryce Harper's approach at the plate has grown by leaps and bounds this season.  It may be that he's less anxious because he's healthy and not worrying about injuries, but his approach has been the driving force behind his recent surge.  It's hard to believe that Bryce Harper is only 22 years old.  It's such a treat to watch this guy play every day.