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Should Phillies be worried about Bryce Harper?

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Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ $330 million man, has hit the skids in a big way. Since April 21, the six-time All-Star has hit .147/.301/.294 with four doubles, a pair of homers, and 11 RBI in 83 plate appearances spanning 20 games. He has struck out in 28 of those plate appearances while walking 14 times.

As a unit, the Phillies have been performing well despite Harper’s slump, winning 12 of those 20 games, a .600 winning percentage that lines up with their overall 24-16 record. Of course, the Phillies presumably could have turned some of those eight losses into wins if only Harper had been hitting better.

Columns, such as this one by Neil Greenberg for the Washington Post, are increasingly appearing and certainly will continue to until Harper corrects course. The most glaring stat causing consternation is Harper’s 30.5 percent strikeout rate, which would be by far a career-high if the season were to end today and would mark a nine percent increase over his career average. Only 14 qualified batters have struck out more often than Harper. Harper hasn’t just been swinging and missing at strike threes, either — his overall contact rate of 66.3 percent, per FanGraphs, would be a career-worst and is about 8.5 percent above his career average.

That being said, Harper’s year-to-year declines in contact percentage have dipped by around the same amount. In 2016, his contact percentage was 79.1 percent, but dipped to 74.7 percent the next season, a 4.4 percent dip. It fell to 70.8 percent in 2018, a 3.9 percent fall. And this year’s 66.3 percent represents a 4.5 percent decline. The league’s overall contact rate hasn’t declined that drastically, but has seen a regular year-over-year decline from 78.2 to 77.5 to 76.9 to 76. What if part of Harper’s swing and miss problems can be explained by pitchers throwing harder? Perhaps because of his notoriety, pitchers and coaches spend extra time preparing for him specifically? At any rate, Harper’s 4.4 percent decline from 2016 to ’17 didn’t concern us because his OPS increased from .814 to 1.008. Why should this 4.4 percent decline in particular raise alarm bells if the others didn’t?

As Greenberg mentioned in his article, the quality of Harper’s contact — when he does make contact — is still great. FanGraphs groups contact quality into three buckets: soft, medium, and hard. Harper’s hard-hit percentages since 2016 have been 34.1, 34.3, 42.3, and 41.1. His career average is 35.8 percent. I have been intentionally omitting Harper’s MVP season in 2015 because it was such an outlier, but he had a 40.9 hard-hit percentage that year. When Harper meets bat to ball, he’s hitting the ball as well as he did as an MVP.

There’s also one interesting blip in Harper’s stats, and it concerns pop-ups. Harper hit five all of last year but is already at five this year. As a percentage of batted balls, his pop-up percentage was 3.4 percent last year — and is 7.0 percent for his career — but stands at 13.9 percent in 2019. Since we’ve established that his quality of contact is overall still quite good, this pop-up situation strikes me as fluky. Five pop-ups may not sound like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but he’s only hit 36 total batted ball events in the air. Harper just getting under a pitch or two that he might otherwise have crushed can have a big impact on his numbers. For instance, if we give him one more home run, his slugging percentage goes from .438 to .465. Give him one more double on top of that and it goes to .479. All of a sudden, with just two batted ball events going in his favor instead of against him, Harper has an .858 OPS instead of .805 and we’re not having this conversation.

Streaks often define players. A hot streak at the end of a season can often propel a player into the MVP conversation much more so than if his streak had come at the beginning of the year. But streaks, in general, are just a natural part of the game. Sometimes you run cold, sometimes you run hot. As mentioned above, Harper has a .595 OPS over his last 20 games. What if I told you Harper had a similar skid last year? In 20 games between April 17 and May 8, 2018, Harper hit .162/.341/.353 with a double, four homers, 11 RBI, 19 walks, and 16 strikeouts in 88 PA. Harper finished the season with an .889 OPS. Adjusted for park effects and compared to the rest of the league, that’s 34 percent better than average. Harper’s career .896 OPS is 38 percent above average. Fans might feel better if Harper occasionally blooped a single and got another hit in the box score, but the volatile approach that’s leading to so many swings and misses is the same approach that allowed him to catch fire for 17 games last summer. In 73 plate appearances between July 31 and August 17, Harper hit .406/.479/.766 with eight doubles, five homers, 17 RBI, seven walks, and 14 strikeouts. Aside from a six-game stretch in early April, Harper hasn’t caught fire yet. He will. Most players hit a hot streak at some point or another; Harper is no different.

It seems like Harper is being held to the unrealistically high standard he set in 2015, when he had a 1.109 OPS, 98 percent better than the league average. That was always an outlier season. That’s not to say he won’t ever match it again, but it — a .330 average, 38 doubles, 42 homers, 124 walks — is not the baseline of production that should be expected year in and year out, whether or not he signs a 13-year, $330 million contract. An .875 OPS with 30 homers is perfectly fine production, commensurate with his overall career averages. Despite Harper’s current skid, don’t be surprised if that’s exactly where he ends up by season’s end, and things will resume being sunny in Philadelphia once again.

Twins tie team record with 8 homers in 16-7 win over Angels

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Miguel Sano and Jonathan Schoop each hit two of Minnesota’s franchise record-tying eight home runs and the Twins hammered Matt Harvey and the Los Angeles Angels 16-7 Thursday.

C.J. Cron homered, doubled twice and singled twice for the Twins. Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Eddie Rosario also homered for Minnesota.

It was the third time in franchise history – dating to their days as the Washington Senators – and second time this season Minnesota homered eight times. Before doing it April 20 against Baltimore, the last time it happened was in 1963 against Washington.

Schoop drove in four runs and Sano three as the Twins won six of seven on their road trip that began in Seattle and wound up with their first sweep in Anaheim since 1996. Minnesota, with the best record in the majors, hit 22 homers against the Mariners and the Angels while outscoring them 67-24.

There were a total of 11 home runs in this game, which was originally set for Wednesday but postponed due to unplayable field conditions following a pregame storm.

Angels first baseman Jared Walsh, who made five relief appearances in Triple-A this season, pitched for the first time in the majors. He gave up a run on two hits and a walk in the ninth.

The eight home runs also tied the Angels mark for most allowed. It previously happened in 2005 against Texas and 1996 vs. Oakland.

Four of the seven hits Matt Harvey (2-4) allowed in 2 2/3 innings went over the wall as the right-hander gave up eight runs for the second time this season.

Tommy La Stella hit his first grand slam in the ninth for the Angels, who have dropped four straight. David Fletcher and Brian Goodwin also homered for Los Angeles.

Minnesota broke open the game in the second inning with six runs, which included a three-run shot by Schoop and two-run drive by Polanco. Harvey was chased in the third after solo homers by Cron and Sano.

The Twins hit three home runs in the seventh to extend their lead to 14-2. Sano’s two-run shot and Schoop’s solo homer marked the sixth time the Twins had gone back-to-back this season. Kepler added a two-run drive.

Twins starter Martin Perez (7-1) went five innings and yielded two runs on five hits.

TOUGH DAY

Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun came up twice with the bases loaded but was unable to get a hit. He struck out in the third and grounded into a force out to end the fifth.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Twins: DH Nelson Cruz (left wrist sprain) returned to Minneapolis. He is eligible to come off the injured list on Friday but manager Rocco Baldelli said they are still seeing how he is doing swinging during batting practice.

Angels: SS Andrelton Simmons (left ankle sprain) saw a foot and ankle specialist Wednesday and expects to remain in a walking boot for at least two weeks. . LHP Andrew Heaney (elbow) had a bullpen session before Thursday’s game and could make his season debut Sunday.

UP NEXT

Twins: Return home and open a three-game series against the Chicago White Sox. RHP Jose Berrios (6-2, 3.39 ERA) has seven or more strikeouts in his last four starts.

Angels: Conclude their home stand with three games against Texas. RHP Griffin Canning (2-3, 3.80 ERA), who became the second LA starter to go seven innings last Saturday against Kansas City, gets the call on Friday.

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