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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.

Neal Huntington thinks players should be allowed to re-enter games after concussion testing

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Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who has suffered many concussions throughout his 12-year career, was hit on the back of the helmet on a Joc Pederson backswing Saturday against the Dodgers. Through Cervelli remained in the game initially, he took himself out of the game shortly thereafter and went on the seven-day concussion injured list on Sunday.

Perhaps inspired by Saturday’s event, Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested that players should be allowed to re-enter games once they have passed concussion tests, the Associated Press reports. Huntington said, “Any player that had an obvious concussion risk incident should be allowed to be removed from the game, taken off the field, taken into the locker room, assessed by a doctor, assessed by a trainer, go through an extended period of time and then re-enter the game. Because right now, all of this has to happen on the field.”

Huntington added, “The player has to feel pressure as he’s standing there with 30,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 eyes on him. He has to feel pressure to make a decision whether (he’s) in or (he’s) out of this game. He knows if he takes himself out and he’s the catcher, there’s only one other catcher, and the game becomes a fiasco if that other catcher gets hurt.”

Huntington, who has been forward-thinking on a number of other issues, has it wrong here. The concussion protocols were created because players frequently hid or under-reported their injuries in order to remain in the game. Especially for younger or otherwise less-proven players, there is pressure to have to constantly perform in order to keep one’s job. Furthermore, there is an overarching sentiment across sports that taking time off due to injury makes one weak. Similarly, playing while injured is seen as tough and masculine. Creating protocols that take the decision-making out of players’ hands keeps them from making decisions that aren’t in their own best interests. Removing them would bring back that pressure for players to hide or minimize their ailments. If anything, MLB’s concussion protocols should become more stringent, not more relaxed.

The powers that be with Major League Baseball have no doubt followed the concussion scandal surrounding the National Football League. In January, the NFL settled for over $1 billion with retired players dealing with traumatic brain injuries, including dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. For years, the league refused to acknowledge the link between playing football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia and has many negative effects, such as increasing the risk of suicide. Since baseball isn’t often a contact sport, MLB doesn’t have to worry about brain injuries to this degree, but it still needs to take preventative measures in order to avoid billion-dollar lawsuits as well as avoiding P.R. damage. In December 2012, former major league outfielder Ryan Freel committed suicide. Freel, who claimed to have suffered as many as 10 concussions, suffered from CTE. MLB players can suffer brain injuries just like football players.

Huntington seems to be worried about not having enough rostered catchers in the event one or two catchers get injured. That is really an issue of roster management. Carrying only two catchers on the roster is a calculated risk, often justified. Huntington can ensure his team never has to be put in the position of not having a catcher in an emergency by rostering a third catcher. Rosters are expanding to 26 players next year, by the way.