Monday, May 18, 2015

Analyzing Harper's Hot Start

Harper's having a tremendous start to the season (Zimbio)
Bryce Harper was at it again yesterday, going 3-for-4 with a triple and home run in Washington's 10-5 rout of the San Diego Padres.  The blast, Harper's NL-leading 14th of the year, was also his ninth in the past dozen days. And while he fell a double short of the cycle, the big day raised his batting line to a Ruthian .338/.476/.729 (221 OPS+).

Granted, we're not even a quarter of the way through the season yet, but it's impossible not to marvel at what Harper's done thus far. He's put the Nationals' slumping lineup on his back, accounting for one-third of the team's home runs and driving in a major-league leading 37 runs. Opponents have pitched around him, intentionally walking him five times already and 36 overall (both lead the majors), but that hasn't stopped him from inflicting major damage on the few strikes he does see.

Harper went yard on Opening Day and hasn't stopped hitting since. Following a strong April in which he posted a .985 OPS, he's been even better thus far in May with nine home runs, 22 RBI, and 14 walks with two weeks to go before the calendar flips to June. His OPS for the month currently stands at an astronomical 1.511.

Harper's been the best hitter in baseball over the first six weeks, and thus appears to have become the superstar he was always destined to be. After three years of coming up short in comparisons to Mike Trout, baseball's other wunderkind, Harper has finally ascended to Trout's level. Right now it's Harper, not Trout, who currently leads all of baseball in refWAR.

There's a lot of interesting trends going on with Harper's hellacious start. The first is his walk rate, which has ballooned to over 21 percent--more than double his career 10.4 percent mark coming into the year. A lot of that has to do with how poorly the Nationals not named Harper and Denard Span have hit, but at the same time Harper's also exhibited improved patience and strike zone knowledge in his fourth big league campaign. His overall swing rate is the lowest of his career, as he's been much more selective on pitches both in and out of the zone.

His batted ball data also reveals major shifts from his first three seasons, starting with his spray charts. Harper's pulled over half the balls he's put in play this year, after never having done so on even 40 percent of his batted balls in any prior season. He's using center field about the same, meaning he's going the other way a lot less often. This shift helps explains Harper's massive power surge, as players rarely hit to the opposite field with power and tend to pull the majority of their home runs.

Harper has also become a different hitter in terms of how he elevates the ball. He's become much more of a fly ball hitter, hitting more fly balls than grounders for the first time in his career. That would also explain why his power numbers are through the roof, and should help them stay up even as his 34.1 percent HR/FB inevitably falls back to earth. Impressively, he's managed to loft the ball much more frequently without increasing his pop-out rate, which is just a tick below his career rate.

Harper's also hitting more line drives than ever before, which helps explain how he's been able to bat .383 on balls in play despite lifting almost half those balls into the air. With FanGraphs classifying nearly one-quarter of his batted balls as line drives, it's no wonder that he's flashing the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, either, with two-fifths of his batted balls qualifying as such.

So what does all of this mean? Harper, the age of a typical college graduate, is still improving. He's walking more (a lot more), striking out less, and hitting the ball with authority. Luck has absolutely played a part in his hot start--that home run rate and BABiP are bound to fall--but Harper has proven himself to be a demonstrably better hitter. His increased patience is indicative of a maturing player, while his superior results on swings suggest he's honing in on pitches he can crush. It's plain for all to see that Harper is locked in, which is always a sight to behold when a player with his unlimited ability develops the right approach to complement it.

The last few years there was no doubt about who the best player in baseball was. Now it's very much up for debate.

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