Photo by Ed Sheahin for The Sports Capitol

Harper is less disciplined at leadoff

BY TODD DYBAS | MAY 10, 2018

Bryce Harper took a break Wednesday. His 0-for-19 slump and unsuccessful turn as the team’s leadoff hitter prompted Davey Martinez to remove Harper from the lineup. Harper joked just last week that he wanted to play all 162 games and receive the Iron Man Award. That opportunity is over following his first game off.

Harper has stated in the past that he wants to hit cleanup. He is something of a baseball historian, especially for a player his age in the modern era, who knows fourth is the home of a slugger, of the black-and-white legends from years past. Leadoff is for the slap-hitting speedster, not the brute from Las Vegas in pursuit of a $400 million contract.

Modern sentiment and basic math have encroached on that line of thought. The most simplistic version of the argument goes like this: Provide your best hitter with the most at-bats. That batting position doesn’t matter after the first inning bolsters the first thought. Each, of course, discount the human factor.

In taking a look at what is happening this season — and in particular Harper’s recent run as the leadoff hitter — we will mainly rely on the flood of mathematical information out there. However, the above was mentioned because of all the math should be framed around the reality that Harper is a 25-year-old who is here to homer, not walk. ”At 25 years old, you want to hit the baseball,” Harper said May 1. This, as much as any statistical measure, suggests what’s going on in Harper’s head.

“Let’s go to 25 years old and he’s still learning and still maturing as a baseball player,” Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long said recently. “I feel like he’s done a really good job thus far. Does he have some work to do? Yeah, he’ll be the first to tell you that. I’ll be the first to tell you. But, we’re going to work on swinging at good pitches.”

But, to the math we go. We’ll use Baseball Savant to look at year-over-year production for Harper, who comes into Thursday hitting .230 after his batting average and on-base percentage plummeted during his eight-game foray into the leadoff spot. Harper hit .182 since being moved to leadoff. His on-base percentage was .229. He struck out three times as often as he walked.

A deeper look at those at-bats shows a reduction in his plate discipline. Harper swings at strikes 75 percent of the time this season and 73.1 percent for his career, according to Fangraphs. While hitting leadoff this season, that numbers dip to 71.6 percent. He had bad luck May 7 when he hit the ball hard four times — a direct correlation there to taking eight swings, all at pitches in the strike zone — but receiving no hits. Follow that with left-hander Clayton Richard carving him up the next day, and an easy top off to a hitless streak emerges.

When looking at Baseball Savant info overall, two things jump out right away: Hard-hit percentage and launch angle. Harper, in the 122 at-bat sample size we’re working off this season, has never hit the ball harder more often. His “barrell percentage” is 16.2, well above the 12.9 percent of 2015. He’s hitting the ball “hard” almost 50 percent of the time, which is slightly ahead of his rate when he was the unanimous National League MVP. Often, those hard hits are going into the ground.

Harper’s “topped” percentage is also at a career high, naturally mirroring his career-low launch angle in the years the information is available (2015 on). The launch angle of his hits is down almost three percent from his 2015 season.

Is it because he is being pitched in a significantly different way? Not really.

The percentage of fastballs thrown to Harper year by year, according to Baseball Savant:

2015: 61.6
2016: 59.8
2017: 60.7
2018: 57.8.

So, a dip of about four percent when using the numbers for early this season. The reduction coincides with a league-wide decrease in fastball usage. “Softer is better” is a belief being used to counter the launch-angle era. All four of the Nationals’ main starters — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark — have used their fastball well below their career averages each of the last two seasons. Gonzalez, Roark and Strasburg are using it even less this season than 2017. Only Scherzer has gone back up (more on that another time).

The book on Harper, as his new manager, Davey Martinez, recently explained, is that he will chase late in the count. Martinez was charged with keeping much of the tracking information while the Chicago Cubs’ bench coach. He carried around the premises with which to get Harper out.

Knowing that’s the basic belief, it’s paramount for Harper to swing at pitches in the zone. This is not exclusive to him and carries a level of “duh” significance. But, it does circle back to his comments and general thought about positioning in the order. There is a person he expects, even projects, himself to be. So, choice and patience are going to be the human factors we’ll fold into this assessment. The numeric configuration of those things become his chase percentage or the amount of time he is swinging at strikes.

And, his chase percentage shows his discipline is in line with his career average. It’s down from last season. It is a sliver (25.3 to 25.5) better than 2015. The things that stand out here are the rate of contact he is making with pitches in the strike zone and his chase contact percentage. In both cases, Harpers is missing the ball more often when he swings, no matter where it is. The drop in his contact on pitches in the strike zone has been egregious: A career average of 81.5 down to 72.7 this season.

So, what the have here:

— A player who is still just 25 and has appearance and aura on his mind.
— Someone who is hitting the ball hard often.
— Someone who is hitting the ball hard often into the ground.
— Someone who is not making contact — in the zone or out — at the rate he has prior.
— Someone who is less disciplined when hitting leadoff.
— Someone who has a lot of evidence that a couple minute changes will deliver big results.

Harper was back in the lineup Thursday night. He was hitting leadoff, again. It’s a strange decision all things considered.

Todd Dybas is the managing editor and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He has spent 17 years in the sports editorial industry, working as a writer and layout editor, winning multiple awards in both positions. He has been an NFL beat writer, has worked as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for seven years, and is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association.

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