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Scott Boras on Bryce Harper; fear; walk rates; hard contact rates; pending free agency + more...

Scott Boras held court in Nationals Park on Tuesday afternoon, discussing a number of topics, and talking at length about how to read what the numbers show about Bryce Harper’s season...

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper spit on two sliders from Boston Red Sox’ right-hander Joe Kelly in their eighth inning matchup on Monday night, taking them both for balls, then he crushed a center-cut, 97 mph fastball, hitting a 439-foot blast into the second deck in right field in Nationals Park for his 21st home run of 2018.

It was the first home run by a left-handed batter off Kelly this season, and, as Harper’s agent Scott Boras described it on Tuesday, an example of the fear he instills in opposing pitchers which led the opposition to decide that not giving his client anything to hit was the way to go.

“You wonder why there’s a fear and then you see what happened last night,” Boras began.

“You see that ball — two [breaking] balls you take, and then all of a sudden you see the ball leave the ballpark like that. That’s not a home run, that’s a memorable moment of fear for thirteen arms that are sitting over there and everyone that watched, because few people can hit the ball like that, and the sound of it, and a lot of times greatness is negotiating with the game at many levels.”

Boras, as he’ll tell you, has seen and interacted with greatness before, but rarely, he argued, at length, on Tuesday, after he helped introduce Nationals’ draft pick Mason Denaburg, has he seen the game react to a player the way they’ve reacted to Harper.

Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Harper’s 21 home runs are the second-most in the National League, behind only the RockiesNolan Arenado (22). He has just a .215/.362/.478 line overall this season, however, with a low average, Boras argued, the one big difference for the 25-year-old slugger, who currently has a .278/.384/.512 career line in his seven major league seasons.

“I’ve dealt with greatness in this game for a long time,” Boras explained when asked about Harper’s numbers in the last few months not being what we’re accustomed to seeing from the 2010 No. 1 overall pick when he’s healthy.

“The great thing about trials the game brings to great players is you have to look at what the game, and what the opponents, are trying,” he continued, “... and what the game is trying to do to prohibit greatness.

“He gets off to a great start and what do they do, well they’re going to starve him from the strike zone — and remember they’re not doing this to a [Mike] Trout or a [Manny] Machado. Why is that?

“They’re great players. Why are they not doing it to them, yet they’re doing it to Bryce? And the answer to that I think largely is that the power component, it carries a great fear, and they’re trying things where the walk rates are — I think with a guy like Machado who’s a great hitter and a great player, they’re double, so why would the league treat somebody so differently and put him on base so much, at such higher rates?

“I just believe there’s an intimidation factor that comes with Bryce — and it may have to do with lineup dynamics — but the point is that the adjustment is that the game is going to give you an infrequency of pitches to hit, and they’re not doing that with other great players, so that this adjustment, and I think over the past eight or nine days you’ve seen a very steep adjustment by Bryce where all of a sudden now his average is up, his slugging and OPS is way up, and so he’s looked at this and evaluated it, and certainly the game has gone to a great skill, and said we’re going to try something and we’re going to make you go to first base rather than swing.”

Harper was, of course, taking those walks when it first started to happen again this season.

Then, as he and manager Davey Martinez have acknowledged, he got frustrated, started to go outside the zone, and has now tried to reel it back in, take the free passes, and accept that he’s not going to get much to hit, and when he does, he has to make contact instead of fouling pitches off as he was for a while there.

“When you look at our game, how hard it is to get to first base,” Boras continued, “we tend to look at what the traditional treatment of players is, as opposed to what’s going on with him and that is his on-base percentages, his hard-hit percentages, all of the analytics are favorable to performance gradients that you’d expect with greatness, but we seem to be looking at one thing and that is the amount of hits he gets, as opposed to what hits bring.

“So what hits bring, Bryce is bringing all of that to you, the production, the home runs, the power, what we’re not seeing is — one thing about greatness, you have to know when to use it, and when a painter paints is something that is at issue here, and that frequency, the opponents have said we’re going to make this — you’re going to get less opportunities this way, and we’re going to put you on base more, we’re going to require others to take advantage of that and see how that goes, and see if that affects this team, and so how we look at Bryce has to be in line with this rather unique approach.

“I think it’s been done before with other great players. It’s not often they do it, but there really aren’t other players in the game that are walking at that rate and are getting so few pitches to hit, and I think he’s adjusted to that now, I think the last 9-10 games you’ve seen the difference in what he’s doing.”

Asked if he thought the approach of free agency, and the big decision Harper will have to make at some point either over the next few months, or this winter, was weighing on him, and having some impact, Boras returned to the idea that the approach opposing pitchers have decided on is the biggest factor in what we’ve seen.

“I look at metrics about hard you hit the ball, and what you’re doing with the pitches that you can hit, versus when the league doesn’t want to participate in a way that is customary, then we can’t look at players in customary ways, and there’s no question with the walk rates Bryce Harper has, he’s going to have less hits, no doubt about that. And you keep having to ask the question, why don’t they do this to other players if it’s so effective?

“Why don’t they walk all these great players at these great rates, why don’t they do that if it’s such a great routine, and the answer is that teams feel the benefit of pitching to those players — there’s much less of a consequence than there is than to pitch to Harp. What is that consequence? I would assume it has to do with this extraordinary power.”

Also, Boras added, it’s not just the decision other teams have made to walk Harper rather than pitching to him that has affected him, but the increase in defensive shifts, which he sees as discriminatory against not just Harper, but all left-handed hitters.

“His walk rate is grandly atypical and his batting average is grandly atypical and the shift rate is grandly atypical,” Boras explained.

“Those are the three atypical factors. What relates to the others as to his performance-level?

“Is it hard-hit balls? Is it really anything about his performance that relates to the process of efficiency of a player. And the efficiency of a player is a gradient where you’re going to have to have certain components happen to where the frequency of what you’re going to be able to hit is measured by the opportunity. And when you’re not swinging at balls, you’re doing the right thing as a player. When you’re not swinging at balls. When you’re swinging at strikes and good pitches to hit, you’re doing the right thing, and so the reality of it is, is that this walk rate has gone dramatically up, the shift-rate where he’s hitting the balls hard where the pitches are pitched are there, and I’ve certainly have come to the conclusion that shifting is grandly discriminatory against power left-handed hitters.”

[ed. note - “It’s worth noting, of course, that this could be Boras working out his argument for when/if Harper actually hits free agency, and there is some truth to what he’s saying and seeing in the numbers, but just thought we’d share since it’s interesting if nothing else, and a window into the thinking/thought process of the game’s biggest agent.”]