September 24, 2020

Statistically Speaking: Bryce Harper’s Hot Hitting

Bryce Harper sporting his fantastic stirrups (1st inning) - Atlanta Braves v. Washington Nationals, 8/22/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Bryce Harper bats against Atlanta Braves in 2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

It’s another table-filled post this week at Statistically Speaking, but in a welcome twist, this week’s data dump and analysis will be looking at hitting, and in particular, the resurgent swinging of Bryce Harper. It’s been a lost season of sorts for Harper, with the lion’s share of the year spent recovering (disabled list and otherwise) from a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Not only has it been a long row to hoe from the anatomical aspects of the injury and surgical procedure involved, but also one from a mechanical and timing perspective of his prodigious but oftentimes complicated swing. Even with a clean bill of health, missing significant time and having an injury to the hand have briefly made Harper’s swing a bit of a reclamation project, with stretches seen where his mechanics were inconsistent, erratic, and ever-changing in an effort to once again find comfort and confidence in his hitting abilities.

And reclaim it he has; using the point of his lowest batting average in August (August 6th at .249) as the start of Harper’s hot streak and the return to his hard-swinging ways up to Monday’s outing against the Los Angeles Dodgers (labeled ‘Streak’), we find a sea change in his conventional batting numbers as compared to his prior showing:

Time PA HR AVG OBP SLG
Streak 101 7 0.304 0.356 0.543
Before Streak 205 3 0.249 0.333 0.359

Getting more esoteric and sabermetric with the stats, we still find Harper getting back to his usual self, albeit with a few more strike outs in the process:

Time BB% K% ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
Streak 6.9 % 30.7 % 0.239 0.382 0.392 151
Before Streak 11.2% 27.3% 0.110 0.344 0.306 93

We see that Harper’s success with respect to power is there, as his isolated power (ISO) suggests, but it does come at the expense of some patience, which is reflected in his walk (BB%) and strikeout (K%) rates. He also appears to have had some modicum of ‘luck’, with a nearly-40 point swing in his batting average on balls in play seen.

Applying all of this BABIP increase to luck is probably not the best way to go about things; with that in mind, let’s see how his batted ball rates compare, with the idea that balls landing finding their way to becoming hits would be reflected in any changes in the various batted ball rates we have to reference.

Time LD% GB% FB% HR/FB IFH% BUH%
Streak 21.3% 42.6% 36.1% 31.8% 11.5% 0.0%
Before Streak 19.2% 45.8% 35.0% 7.1% 9.1% 33.3%

More line drives (LD%), fewer ground balls (GB%), more fly balls (FB%), and, more importantly, more fly balls going out of the park (HR/FB%) are better explanatory factors in Harper’s BABIP hike during his hot streak; a slight uptick in infield hits (IFH%) during the streak also can account for some of the intangible ‘luck’ component of BABIP.

Let’s now turn our attention to Harper’s success against particular pitches, with the help of pitch type linear weights per 100 pitches; like always, the more positive a number, the more success a hitter has had against a particular pitch.

Time wFA/C wFT/C wFC/C wFS/C wSI/C wSL/C wCU/C wKC/C wCH/C
Streak 4.15 5.8 2.74 43.79 3.8 -1.74 0.66 -6.71 -2.42
Before Streak -0.9 1.46 -1.4 -2.49 4.78 0.01 -2.98 -11.59 0.11
FA: four-seam fastball, FT: two-seam fastball, FC: cutter, FS: split-finger fastball, SI: sinker, SL: slider, CU: curveball, KC: knuckle curveball, CH: changeup 

With a healed thumb and a more consistent approach at the plate, Harper has had increased success with most pitch types, with breaking pitches and changeups in general still giving him problems, hence the negative values. The slider in particular has given him fits, with the pitch accounting for a little over 18 percent of his strikeouts during the streak.

With contact in mind, let’s now look at Harper’s various contact rates:

Time Contact% O-Contact% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Streak 72.50% 62.80% 78.70% 13.20%
Before Streak 72.60% 48.10% 84.70% 13.50%

Overall, the young slugger is making contact at roughly the same rate he did while struggling with approach and injury (Contact%); however, we do see Harper doing a better job of connecting on pitches out of the strike zone (O-Contact%) during the streak, albeit at the expense of a slight decline in contact rate on pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%). Swinging strike rates have also remained relatively stable, for better or worse.

While the stats show how Harper has improved, they don’t necessarily tell us the mechanics that brought about the good fortune. Through Twitter, we can start to see some of the things underlying the bounce back in Harper’s hitting approach:

Sometimes, a few pictures can tell you so much and in these snapshots, not only do we find good hip and shoulder separation that allow for a unimpeded path for the hands to follow to the ball, we also see a more balanced swing in terms of weight transfer.

While still photos aren’t necessarily the best tool for this sort of granular analysis, what we do see broadly is a balanced swing. Anecdotally, we also see another crucial piece to Harper’s swing that is often the first thing to go awry when he slumps—his head is still and remains on the ball throughout his swing.

Along with this, a healthy thumb that is back to full strength is also an important piece to Harper’s late-season success; with the thumb of his top hand being injured, much of his power was sapped, as was recently explained in a post about Ryan Braun’s thumb injury:

the top hand is what provides the power of the swing and is also the hand that essentially delivers the bat to the right spot for contact with a pitch, accelerating the bat to the point of contact and in the process, allowing for the shortest swing path.

While it is hoped that Harper continues his hot hand, there are some red flags that might lend themselves to a slump if not remedied. Given his issues with plate discipline and continued struggles with putting good swings on offspeed offerings (especially sliders), it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Harper to start to see more offspeed pitches in the dirt and fewer fastballs to start an at bat, with pitchers essentially pitching backwards to him.

However, with his mechanics in check and what appears to be a quieter, more controlled swing with less head movement, his chances of making the relevant adjustments and staying one step ahead of pitchers and maintaining the hit hand are good, making the Nationals lineup all the more imposing.

Tweet courtesy of @SaberCoach; data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

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Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score and a contributor at Camden Depot and Gammons Daily. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow him on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

About Stuart Wallace

Stuart Wallace is a Contributor to District Sports Page. A neuroscientist by day, the Nevada native also moonlights as an Associate Managing Editor for Beyond the Box Score, stats intern at Baseball Prospectus, and a contributor at Camden Depot. A former pitcher, his brief career is sadly highlighted by giving up a lot of home runs to former National Johnny Estrada. You can follow Stu on Twitter @TClippardsSpecs.

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