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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.

Barry Zito rooted against his own team in the 2010 World Series

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Retired big league pitcher Barry Zito has a memoir coming out. Much of it will likely track the usual course of an athlete’s memoir. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and a few fun and/or sad and/or thoughtful anecdotes along the way. One bit of it, though, is not the stuff of the usual athlete memoir.

He writes that he ctually rooted against the San Francisco Giants — his own team —  in the 2010 World Series. He did so because he was left off the postseason roster, felt miserable about it and let his ego consume him. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

“It was really hard to admit . . . I rooted against the team because my ego was in full control and if we lost then I could get out of there . . . It would a) prove they couldn’t do it without me, and b) take me out of the situation because I was so miserable coming to the field every day. I was so deep in shame. I wanted out of that situation so bad.”

Zito at that point was midway through a seven-year, $126 million contract he signed with the Giants after the 2006 season. Almost as soon as he signed it he transformed from one of the better pitchers in the game — he had a 124 ERA+ in eight seasons with the Oakland Athletics and won the 2002 Cy Young Award — to being a liability for the Giants. Indeed, he only had one season in San Francisco where, again, by ERA+, he was a league-average starter or better. In 2010 he went 9-14 with a 4.15 ERA and was way worse than that down the stretch. It made perfect sense for the Giants to leave him off the 2010 postseason roster. And, of course, it worked out for them.

Things would improve. He’d still generally struggle as a Giant, but in 2012 he was a hero of the NLCS, pitching the Giants past the Cardinals in a must-win game. He then got the Game 1 start in the World Series and beat Justin Verlander as the Giants won that game and then swept the Tigers out of the series. As time went on he’d fine more personal happiness as well. When his contract ended following the 2013 season Zito took out a full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle thanking Giants fans for their support. He’d leave the game in 2014 and pitch three more games for the Athletics in 2015 before retiring for good.

Not many baseball memoirs deliver hard truths like Zito’s appears willing to do. That’s pretty damn brave of him. And pretty damn admirable.