On Tuesday, Scott Boras held court to discuss his prized client Bryce Harper and his struggles season-to-date. The Super-Agent, undoubtedly trying to protect his client in a contract year, is known to put a positive spin on metrics to help his players headed into Free Agency.
And, to Boras’ credit, there were plenty of metrics that suggest Harper is performing at a high level. Jorge Castillo, who covers the Nationals for the Washington Post, broke Boras points down:
“Boras looks at Harper’s hard-hit rate (41.3 percent entering Wednesday, which would be a career best). He looks at his walk rate (18.5 percent, which would be his second highest). And he looks at his batting average on balls in play, BABIP (.225, which would be the lowest of his career by a huge margin)”.
So, why then, is Bryce struggling? It begins by looking at his month splits. They suggest a player falling further and further into a hole. Take a look (courtesy of ESPN):
Those are frightening numbers. More than half of Bryce’s walks and nearly a third of his hits came in the opening month of the season.
My point? This is no longer a slump. Something is clearly wrong. Just what is that exactly?
“Boras maintain[s] that shifting has essentially broken the game and particularly hurt left-handed sluggers such as Harper. Boras believes shifts are “discriminatory” against left-handed batters because they can be more drastic against them than against right-handed hitters.”
What exactly is a shift? In Harper’s case, a shift is when three fielders/players are on the right side of second base. Thus taking away any holes for a left handed hitters pull side.
So, is Boras right? Or, is Bryce regressing as a hitter and refusing to make adjustments to the shift?
Lets look at Harper’s plate discipline over the course of the season to find out. According to Baseball Savant, the right fielder has seen 1493 pitches. Of those 1493, 57% (855 total) have been outer-half of the strike zone. On the flip side, only 28% have been on the inside-half for Harper to pull.
Why is this significant? Because great hitters learn how to hit to all fields and take what pitchers give them.
Take a look at this swing early in April. Mets pitcher Hansel Robles throws an outside fastball that Harper absolutely crushes. This is a highlight for a magnitude of reasons, but the swing highlights what Bryce can do. Outside, up, and out of the zone and he takes it the other way out of the park. A perfect swing.
As the season has progressed, however, Harper has become less patient and continuously rolls over fastballs to second base. Here is an example of #34 rolling over to second base. Undoubtedly, a familiar sight for many Nationals fans.
What do both of these videos have in common? Both highlights come from pitches out of the zone and away.
It is a theme for Harper. 58% of the pitches he has seen have been out of the zone. If you think that is a lot, you’re right. In fact, percentage wise, he has seen more pitches out of the zone than any player in the league.
What’s frustrating is that the shift should not be an issue based on the way teams game plan for him. If pitchers were hammering Harper on the inside half of the plate and he was pulling them, then so be it. However, teams are keeping the ball on the outer half, and Harper refuses to adjust by going to the opposite field.
Here are Harper’s splits against the shift with ball in and out of the zone:
In the Zone: 30-116 (.259 BA)
Out of the Zone: 5-62 (.081 BA)
More than a third of the outs generated against the shift are from balls out of the zone. The Radial chart above shows just how often Harper fails to produce hard contact on pitches on the outer-half against the shift. He is simply beating himself, and thus hitting only .197 against the shift.
There are ton of numbers here; baseball allows you to spin data any way you want, because of all the numbers and analytics.
Simply put: teams do what they need to in order to win. The shift is part of that and is not going anywhere. Couple the shift with pitchers’ game plans of attacking Harper on the outer-half, and you have a perfect storm.
So, again, is Boras right? That answer is up to you, but the numbers suggest Harper still has a long ways to go in order to become a complete hitter.
He is simply a good hitter — not great. There are far too many glaring holes in his swing, he has become too impatient, and he too often pulls off pitches away. Until Harper learns to hit to all fields than he is simply not worth what he believes.