Will the Real Bryce Harper……………

Diagnosing Bryce Harper’s Decline

Bryce Harper has a knack for making headlines.

Upon returning from the disabled list in late June, the Nationals outfielder questioned manager Matt Williams’s decision to bat him sixth in the lineup. This past weekend, Harper pissed off Braves fans by dragging his foot over the team logo behind home plate.1 He recently triggered a heated interaction between Williams and local media over whether he should be sent to the minors. He even found a way to motivate (or at least sprinkle batted-ball luck on) a teammate, indirectly hinting that Denard Span should hit the bench, and somehow turning Span into one of the hottest players in baseball in the process.

All of those incidents could spark some interesting discussions. They also ignore the more troubling trend: Harper has played poorly this season, and compared to his historical peers — the other players who broke into the big leagues with a bang at a very young age — Harper’s Year 3 performance looks hugely out of place.

To properly frame how disappointing Harper’s 2014 season has been, we need to start by recognizing how extraordinary his 2012 season was. Harper debuted on April 28 and went on to deliver an excellent all-around campaign, hitting .270/.340/.477 with 22 homers, 18 steals, impressive defense, and a stream of highlight-reel plays. According to Baseball-Reference’s wins above replacement stat, he generated 5.1 wins with his all-around skills, ranking just outside the National League’s top 10. His .817 OPS adjusted for park effects netted a 118 OPS+, 18 percent above league average. All of which was enough to earn Harper NL Rookie of the Year honors.

Given the vagaries of defensive metrics, and the fact that Harper earned his megaprospect status primarily with his bat, we can use that OPS+ stat to gauge the impact of his 2012 season. Harper was just 19 that year. Now that we’re decades beyond the bonus baby era, which saw teams throw gobs of money at teenage prospects and then very quickly promote them to the major league level, it’s rare to see players in the big leagues before they turn 20. It’s even rarer to see someone perform as well as Harper did at such a young age. I queried Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to see which players 20 or younger put up the best numbers by OPS+, with a minimum of 500 plate appearances. Here are the top 25. Note: “OPS” is OPS+ in this case.

It turns out that what Harper did in 2012 wasn’t just rare; it was the second-greatest offensive performance ever for a player that young.

Now, just two years later, Harper is having the kind of down season that’s nearly unprecedented for anyone who broke in really young and performed as well or better than he did.

I wrote about Mike Trout’s incredible 2012 season in August of that year; he’s the standard-bearer for 20-or-younger players, and is currently in the midst of a third consecutive season in which he’d make an excellent MVP pick. Ty Cobb hit .350 as a 20-year-old in 1907 and only got better from there, batting a ludicrous .420 four years later. Mel Ott never again matched the 42 homers he hit in his age-20 season in 1929, but he remained one of the best hitters and most fearsome sluggers in the league every year for the next decade and a half. Ditto for Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, and Ted Williams.2 Frank Robinson did see a modest drop in numbers during his third year, but he still cranked 31 homers and won a Gold Glove that season. And so on.

There are a few exceptions here. First baseman Dick Hoblitzell was born in 1888 and hit .308/.364/.418 as a 20-year-old in his first full big league season, but never again reached that level despite putting up above-average offensive numbers in his next five seasons. Tony Conigliaro was an offensive force through age 22, but a fastball to the face on August 18, 1967, derailed what could have been an incredible career.

Harper’s closest comp on this list, however, might be contemporary Jason Heyward. A 6-foot-5, 245-pound physical specimen, Heyward broke into the big leagues with a titanic three-run homer, setting the stage for an excellent rookie campaign in which he’d hit .277/.393/.456 with 18 homers, 91 walks, and an array of sparkling defensive plays. By advanced stats like WAR that factor in defense, Heyward has remained a tremendously valuable player, with the highlight-worthy clips to match. But he’s become a relatively pedestrian offensive player, with his home run numbers in particular drying up, a weird occurrence for someone that big and that talented.3

Still, when it comes to very young players who started their careers with a bang, none dropped off as dramatically by Year 3 as Harper has. Thanks to ESPN Stats & Info, we can track the full extent of Harper’s decline. And it’s not pretty.

First, let’s look at Harper’s strikeout rate and power numbers this season, as compared to 2012 and 2013. All stats in the below tables are current through Monday’s MLB action.4

Stat 2012-13 2014
BA .272 .249
OPS .834 .698
OPS+ 118 95
Strikeout Rate 19.6% 28.5%
HR (HR Rate) 42 (4.4%) 4 (2.0%)
Harper has struggled most this season against inside pitches. He’s failing to pull these balls as often, he’s hitting more of them on the ground, and he’s swinging through more pitches located in this zone. A total of 32.3 percent of his strikeouts have come on inside pitches this season, compared to only 21 percent in 2012 and 2013.

Stat 2012-13 2014
Slugging % .622 .404
Swing-and-Miss Rate 24.4% 34.8%
Ground Ball Rate 48.1% 63.0%
Percent Pulled 57.7% 44.4%
Inside pitches aren’t the only ones giving him fits this year. While Harper succeeded against pitches on the inner half before 2014, he’s now shown a persistent inability to do anything with pitches down and on the outer half. As the numbers below show, he’s ranked among the league’s worst in that category (out of 198 players who’ve seen at least 700 pitches) since the start of last season.

Stat Total Rank
BA .165 T-181
Slugging % .216 T-174
Swing-and-Miss Rate 39.7% T-147
Breaking down Harper’s performance by situational splits reveals more struggles. He hit .341 with six homers on the first pitch in 2012. In 2013, he batted .388 with eight homers in that spot. Through Monday of this season, he was hitting just .242, with no home runs and one RBI on first pitches. And while numbers with runners in scoring position often vacillate even for some of the game’s best and most consistent players, the drop in Harper’s RISP line is ugly. He was batting .196 in those spots this year, compared to .282 in 2012 and .230 in 2013, and striking out in 34.5 percent of his plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Here’s a look at the highest strikeout rates with runners in scoring position among NL players with at least 50 plate appearances this season.

Player Team Strikeout Rate
Junior Lake Cubs 43.5%
Jarrod Saltalamacchia Marlins 37.9%
Scott Van Slyke Dodgers 35.2%
Brandon Belt Giants 35.2%
Bryce Harper Nationals 34.5%
Finally, ESPN has a stat called hard-hit average, which tracks exactly what you’d think: the frequency with which a batter hits the ball hard. In his rookie season, Harper posted a hard-hit average of .226, placing him a solid 51st out of 144 qualified batters. Since then, that number has plummeted to .197 last season and .149 this season.

Despite all of that damning statistical evidence of decline, there remains one huge, mitigating factor that helps explain what’s happened to Harper this season: injuries. On April 25, Harper cracked a three-run triple, punctuating the feat with a head-first slide into third. But that slide resulted in a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, an injury that knocked him out of the lineup for more than two months. At the time of the injury, Harper was hitting .289/.352/.422, solid numbers in today’s increasingly pitcher-friendly environment, even if they were a little short of the annual sky-high expectations that fans and pundits have for him. Since returning from the DL, however, Harper has been terrible. In 141 plate appearances spread over 36 games, he’s batted just .230, with a .329 on-base percentage and an anemic .352 slugging average. He’s hit just four homers in that span, and has posted a 36.1 percent strikeout rate that would lead the majors by a wide margin if prorated over the entire season.

There are two bits of positive spin here: The first is that Harper’s thumb has severely limited his productivity, the same way similar injuries did for top hitters like Dustin Pedroia and others. A return to health, whether this season or in 2015, would presumably allow Harper to better tap into his vast potential and become the hitting star and MVP candidate that the baseball world expects him to be. The second is that he might finally be turning things around. The above tables didn’t account for last night’s game, in which Harper smacked a two-run homer, his second in five games and sixth hit in that span.

Still, until Harper fully rediscovers his 2012 form, doubts will linger. We’ll wonder if his all-out playing style could result in more injuries, like when he smashed into the wall at Dodger Stadium last year, an incident that incredibly only cost him a couple of starts but could have been much worse. And we’ll wonder if anointing Harper as “Baseball’s Chosen One” when he was 16 years old might’ve been a case of way too much, way too soon.

He’s still just 21 years old, and he’s still on that OPS+ list with some of the greatest hitters of all time. The smart money’s still on Harper becoming a star, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.

The Attack of the Brothers Zimm

The Zimm boys, Jordan and Ryan ganged up on the Phillies last night (June 3).  What a fun game to watch!

Ryan lived up to all the ridiculous hype and actually did play left field.  His first at bat said it all, as he blasted a rocket down the line in left for a double.  For an encore, just in case there were one or two doubters remaining, he did the same thing into the corner in right field:)  Many have said in amazement that Ryan usually shows up for Spring Training and from the first day will usually spray line drives all over the field!  I believe it.

Jordan for his part found his feel and command of all his pitches again and put his problems of May in the rearview mirror!  He easily pitched 8 strong innings and could have continued for a CG.  Knowing how steady he is I’m confident we are in for “smooth sailing ahead” from J-Zimm.

As to what will happen with Ryan when Bryce Harper returns in mid-July, “Manager Matt’ said publicly “we will deal with that when it happens, based on how everyone is playing at that time.” I am not going to speculate therefore on something so complex, with so many variables, including possible future injuries, that will influence the team’s decision-makers.

 

 

 

Now Harper Out for Two Months!

This latest news is a huge blow to the Nats chances for fighting their way to the playoffs.  Both Zim and Bryce got seriously hurt sliding headfirst.

Doug Fister and Wilson Ramos are on the road back however.  It seems possible that Fister could start a game by about May 7th.  Ramos is practicing “lightly.”  It will likely take him several more weeks to regain the strength needed to bat with power in game conditions.  But he hopes to appear in minor-league games this week.

This is the time for the bench players to step up and show us why they made the roster coming out of Spring Training!  I have to admit, after hoping the Nats would trade Danny Espinosa before Spring Training, that he has made me VERY GLAD he is still here!  I did not think it would be possible to make Danny a major league hitter, but I was wrong:)  I’m impressed with the improved hitting thus far.  And we all know he is a gold glove calibre fielder.  In fact many of the usual suspects posting on the team website are calling for Danny to REPLACE Ian Desmond at SS!

Late breaking news:  Zack Walters has been sent down to Syracuse as well as Taylor Jordan. Ryan Mattheus is back up here.  The last time Mattheus pitched well was in 2012; I hope they don’t have to use him in a critical situation.  Maybe they want to have him in case they need a “mop-up” pitcher in a game that has got out of hand:)  I also hope they bring Souza back.

Manager Matt Blows One

Matt Williams cost the Nats the game last night (April 21).  In the 8th inning Tyler Clippard was on the mound.  An Angels rally was gathering steam with two dangerous left-handed batters coming up (Aybar and Raul Ibanez).  Ibanez is a well-known “Nats-Killer”.  Everyone knows Clippard is having serious problems with Lefties, especially this year.  The Nats had 3 left-handed pitchers in the pen and Cedeno was all warmed up. But Matt stuck with Clippard!  I was screaming at my TV! I think even my 5-yr old grandson would have brought in Cedeno 🙂  So the bottom line is the Angels proceeded to score 4 runs as both batters came through with base hits, and Ibanez hit his over Bryce’s head in left field!

Ian Desmond’s 2 errors in the inning didn’t help!  But errors happen, while manager decisions are avoidable.

 

Bryce Boo-boo

Ironic cover of the Nationals' magazine that came out on April 17!

Ironic cover of the Nationals’ magazine that came out on April 17!

Manager Matt Williams benched Bryce the boy-wonder yesterday for NOT HUSTLING!  What’s this, you wonder?  OK, I was there (April 19) and this is what happened:  in the 6th inning Bryce hit a come-backer to the pitcher.  He was so upset with himself that he jogged to first.  Next thing he knew MM (that’s “Manager Matt”) was telling him “Frandsen is going to left field.”

In the press conference after the game both were asked about the incident.  And both said the right things, Matt explaining what he expects of his players (maximum hustle) and Bryce saying Matt did the right thing (essentially admitting he screwed up).

Case closed as far as I’m concerned.

The media tried to say that since Bryce would have come to bat in the ninth with a chance to win the game and that Bryce let his team-mates down.  I say that’s nonsense because Frandsen has been hitting very well in clutch situations. In fact, he hit well in this situation yesterday, getting an RBI!

Honey, I shrunk the team!

There’s no joy in Mudville – nor in the Nationals’ dugout. Chad Tracy (18), Ryan Zimmerman (11), Rick Eckstein, and manager Davey Johnson, right, watch the final moments of the game against the Braves, Sunday, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

There’s no joy in Mudville – nor in the Nationals’ dugout. Chad Tracy (18), Ryan Zimmerman (11), Rick Eckstein, and manager Davey Johnson, right, watch the final moments of the game against the Braves in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Well, it turns out Tom Boswell probably didn’t jinx the Nats before the Braves series, the team jinxed itself.  One conclusion I drew after the just concluded series is that it seems last year’s dismal results when they played Atlanta left the core Nats who were here last year without much confidence that they can beat the Braves.  Conversely, the Braves came to town with a swagger earned from beating the Nats convincingly in 2013 (thirteen times).  I’ve seen this happen to teams from time to time.  Hopefully the 2-1 Washington win on Sunday will help.

But the ugly game on Saturday revealed some serious problems for the team that have me very concerned.

I’ll begin with Ryan Zimmerman, the “franchise player.”  The face of the team.  We all know he has been dealing for years with throwing shoulder problems.  Now we know he has a chronic arthritis issue that isn’t going away.  He just had all winter to rest the shoulder, so a few days of not playing is no longer the answer.  More surgery is not the answer and I’m sure he has tried a variety of drugs.  So we are likely looking at a combination of platooning him at first base when a lefty is pitching, Ryan trying to just throw side-arm more of the time(side-arm doesn’t seem to be painfull), and sitting him more often.  Ryan’s new $100M multi-year contract complicates the long-range issues, as does the fact that Adam LaRoach is off to a good start this year.

Next comes Bryce Harper’s poor start to the season.  Many players begin a season “in the slow lane” from time to time.  But the way Bryce is dealing with it has me pretty worried.  He’s throwing childish temper tantrums and saying he has no clue what the problem is.  Most pitchers have figured out how to pitch to Harper and he has not adjusted accordingly.

Then I have to point out Stephen Strasburg’s poor performance after Zimmerman’s throwing error.  We have all seen him crumble numerous times in the past when faced with adversity; the pouting, the body language, the inability to keep his focus of pitching winning baseball.  In Saturday’s game the first two didn’t happen, but the third certainly did!  Strasburg’s fastball lost 2-4 mph, he lost enough of his command that he “grooved” a few pitches and the Braves began stringing multiple hits together and I watched his game go downhill.  I’m a former pitcher who knows what it takes.  To be a successful pitcher requires what I call a Pit Bull mentality.  THAT is what Strasburg lacks.  I’ll point out two Nats pitchers who clearly have what I’m talking about:  Jordan Zimmermann and Tanner Roark (the team has others too) NEVER give in to the other team, no matter what is going on around them.  They are both relentless battlers, and the hitters know that.  Unless Stephen can somehow develop some mental toughness, he won’t be an elite pitcher.

I’m also concerned about Doug Fister‘s and Wilson Ramos‘ injuries.  The team needs them sooner rather than later.

Adam Laroche, First Baseman, Nationals

Courtesy of Buck Commander

Courtesy of Buck Commander

The Nat’s first baseman, Adam Laroche, is an avid hunter. He is far from the only baseball player who spends much of his off-season tromping around the US outback trying to outsmart some big wild animals. But Adam makes a bigger challenge out of it by utilizing a bow and arrow! What’s more, he founded and co-owns the big-game hunting show “Buck Commander” on the Outdoor Channel. Adam recently described his “dream hunt” this way: “I would hunt grizzly bear with my bow and hopefully have my son (almost 12 year-old Drake) at my side.” One wonders what Drake’s mother as well as the Nats management would have to say about that!

Courtesy of Washington Post

Courtesy of Washington Post

Since Adam Laroche signed with the Nats in 2010, his son Drake has become a part of the team. During batting practice he can be seen flitting around the outfield chasing big-league flyballs and jumping up and down when he snags one in his black glove. He refers to Nats players like he would school recess buddies: Desi, Zim, Bryce, J-dub.

One day last Spring the Nats were out jogging and playing catch on a day that was unusually cold for Florida. A couple of the veterans came up with a novel solution to this “problem.” They asked Drake to represent the team’s wishes by going to then-manager Davey Johnson and persuading him to let the team do indoor workouts that day. Drake took on the task calmly and convinced Johnson to bring the team in out of the cold! Later, when a reporter heard the story, he pulled Davey aside and asked him how “the kid’ had pulled off the feat. Davey chuckled as he replied “the kid should be the team’s representative to the Players Association; he gave me no
option.”

On the day in Sept. 2012 that the Nats clinched the National League East title, while most of the team was guzzling beer, Drake was in the corner with the other underage kid in the clubhouse, Bryce Harper, sipping apple cider.

Adam Laroche himself grew up in big league clubhouses. His father Dave pitched in the majors until Adam was 4, and then became a coach with the Chicago White Sox.