And he has.
At age 22, already four seasons deep in his MLB career, Bryce Harper won the NL MVP by sending 42 balls over the wall and mustering a ridiculous 1.109 OPS. To put that greatness into perspective, Paul Goldschmidt had the next highest OPS at 1.005, over .100 points fewer than Harper. There also hasn’t been an OPS that high since 2008 when Albert Pujols had an absurd 1.114.
Simply put, he raked. It was one of the best offensive seasons in recent years, but his 2016 campaign saw less raking and more frustration. At 24 home runs and a .814 OPS, Harper was still an All Star but never seriously in the MVP discussions. Those numbers are closer to what he produced his first three seasons the Bigs, so which Bryce Harper is the real one?
Is it cliche to say both? Whatever, I’m going to. Deal with it, bro, it’s my blog. The reason is we don’t really know what Harper is going to be yet. It’s amazing, but people seem to forget he’s still only 24 years old. Last year’s MVP, Kris Bryant, who is now blossoming into one of the faces of the game, is 25. The “give the guy a break, he’s still young” excuse rarely applies anymore because players are breaking out in the MLB at a younger age than ever, but we can’t expect that to be the norm for everyone.
So what happened last year? An easy answer comes from Harper’s BABIP (batting average of ball in play) which measures how often a player gets credit for a hit when he puts the ball in play. It differs from batting average because it’s strictly measuring what happens when a player makes contact in fair territory. BABIP can help you identify when a player is getting lucky, i.e. getting bloop hits, or getting unlucky by hitting the ball hard but right at people.
In Harper’s five seasons his BABIP has accumulated to .317. In his MVP campaign in 2015 his BABIP was .369 and in 2016 it was .264. So while he might have lucked into a couple of hits in 2015, 2016 treated Harper like it treated Alan Thicke, David Bowie, Leia Organa and numerous other celebrities. But that doesn’t explain the drop in power.
Almost a quarter of Harper’s hits in 2015 went for dingers while in 2016 less than 20% of his hit left the yard. He also put a higher percentage of pitchers in play in 2016, but maybe that wasn’t such a good thing. Maybe his pitch selection needs some adjusting, considering 26% of his strikes were looking, a career high. He also swung at a career low 43% of total pitches.
A topic all last season was how teams were pitching Harper much differently, giving him less to swing at and somewhat teasing him. His first pitch swinging percentage was also at a career low 29%, suggesting he wasn’t getting much to swing at in that scenario. These number almost suggest pitchers were pitching backwards to Harper. Normally this simply means throwing offspeed pitches to set up your fastball instead of the reverse, but in this case it seems like pitchers were intentionally giving Harper nothing to hit early in the count.
Which pretty much means Harper needs to make an adjustment, just like any hitter at age 24. Instead of sitting dead-red on the first pitch he needs to work the count like all MVP-caliber hitters need to do. There’s no doubt Harper has the ability to return to that MVP form, but he’ll need to get used to not seeing pitches he likes until later in the count.