Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and umpire Ron Kulpa watch a flyball go foul. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)
It’s early, but it looks like pitchers don’t want to give Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper anything to hit. Heading into Tuesday night’s games, the 25-year-old former MVP has seen just 37.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone, his lowest rate since 2013, his second year in the major leagues. Harper also isn’t prone to chase these pitches, offering a swing less than 22 percent of the time. The benefits of his approach are twofold: He waits for a pitch he likes so he can crush it, or he gets a free pass to first base.
Harper is slugging .919 on pitches in the strike zone, the third-highest in the majors among players with at least as many at-bats, and was even able to hit a 96-mph, four-seam fastball in the zone more than 400 feet into the stands — despite breaking his bat in two.
Harper is also drawing a walk in 27 percent of his plate appearances which, if sustained, would match the third-highest rate in MLB history, second only to Barry Bonds’s 2002 and 2004 seasons.
What makes Harper’s feat more interesting is that pitchers threw more than 41 percent of pitches to Bonds in the strike zone over those seasons, perhaps out of fear of who was batting behind him in the order. In Bonds’s best walk rate years, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jeff Kent and Benito Santiago were the most frequent hitters behind him in the lineup, and each ended the season as league-average sluggers or better. Alfonzo’s .757 OPS in 2004, for example, was just 5 percent lower than the league average after accounting for external factors like ballparks.(95 OPS+). Kent’s .933 OPS in 2002 was 47 percent above average (147 OPS+).
This season, Harper isn’t getting much protection from Ryan Zimmerman, whose .390 OPS is well below average (7 OPS+). It’s no wonder pitchers don’t mind avoiding the strike zone against Harper — there is barely a penalty for doing so. Zimmerman is also 2 for 18 (.111) with five strikeouts with Harper on base.
Most frequent batter behind him
Barry Bonds (2004)
Barry Bonds (2002)
Bryce Harper (2018)
Barry Bonds (2003)
Barry Bonds (2001)
To be fair, Zimmerman deserves a better fate. Based on his exit velocities and launch angles, he should have an above-average slugging percentage (.442) instead of his actual rate of .204. Plus, of the four times he has made contact on the sweet spot of the bat, also known as a barrel, just one, a home run off Atlanta’s Julio Teheran on April 3, wasn’t an out, despite each at-bat having a 73 percent chance or better of becoming a hit. Zimmerman is one of just 19 batters this season who has made an out on an at-bat that historically has had at least a 94 percent chance of being a hit.
Exit velocity (mph)
Launch angle (degrees)
Line-drive out to center
Flyball out to right
Line-drive out to center
Zimmerman isn’t the only batter struggling to make something happen at the plate with Harper on base. The team is 13 for 62 (.210) in these situations, yet we would expect it to bat .356 based on each hit’s launch angle and exit velocity. And that’s the good news: Washington is batting way below expectations, with or without Harper on base. The team’s batting average on balls in play with men on base is .294 in a league in which the average is .300. Its BABIP with runners in scoring position is even lower at .262 — only the San Francisco Giants (.205) and Colorado Rockies (.260) are worse among NL teams. The league average is .297.
Taking this a step further, the Nationals are one of the most unlucky teams in baseball, having won two fewer games than expected based on when and where they produce their hits and walks. Their division rival New York Mets, by contrast, have won four more games than expected due to above-average luck. Is that enough to narrow the five-game gap between the clubs in the NL East? It might be, and at the least it could give solace to the Nationals and their fans that there should be better — and more productive — days ahead.
The Nationals rallied against five pitchers in their big burst, winning for just the fourth time in 13 games. The Mets had been off to the best start in franchise history behind the top bullpen in the majors before collapsing.
Trailing 6-1, Washington combined five hits, three walks and a hit batter to take the lead.
Harper’s major league-leading eighth home run was a show of shear power and strength. His bat broke into two pieces, but the ball still flew an estimated 406 feet to right-center field.
Harper connected for a solo drive in the first inning off Jacob deGrom. The bat shattered just above his hands, and the barrel helicoptered into the high, protective netting behind home plate on the first base side.
The five-time All-Star trotted most of the way to first holding the few inches of the handle that remained. On his way back to the dugout, Harper playfully pulled up his sleeve to show his biceps.
DeGrom struck out 12 in 7 1/3 innings, the longest outing by a Mets pitcher this season. He was cruising when he left with two on, one out and a five-run lead. He also drove in a run with a safety squeeze.
A.J. Cole (1-1) got the win despite giving up Asdrubal Cabrera’s two-run homer in the seventh that made it 6-1. Ryan Madson got his second save.
AJ Ramos (0-1) took the loss.
Nationals starter Jeremy Hellickson gave up two runs in 4 2/3 innings of his Nationals debut. Signed to a minor league contract late in spring training, he was added to the roster before the game.
Mets starter Jacob deGrom came inside with a 95 mph fastball that broke Harper’s bat. The barrel went flying toward the backstop, leaving Harper with a piece of the handle … as the ball flew over the right field fence.
It should go without writing that Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is one of the best players in the game. It should, but it will not: Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is one of the best players in the game. He entered Wednesday hitting .333/.529/.879 with six home runs over his first 33 at-bats. He’s already accepted 16 walks, all the while he’s struck out just five times. It’s entirely possible that he wins the National League Most Valuable Player Award this fall.
As such, it takes a special pitcher to annoy or anger Harper right now. On Wednesday, we learned that Bryce’s brother, Bryan, has the stuff to do just that. Oh, Harper the Moundsman didn’t retire Harper the Hitter using a baseball. Instead, Bryan used a smartphone to capture, in the way that only good friends and siblings can do, an embarrassing moment: Bryce double-fisting hairdryers:
It’s unclear whether Bryce is mad about being caught on video while partaking in his grooming regimen, or if he’s not thrilled with his hair upkeep secrets being made publicly available.
Whatever the case, give Bryan credit: he’s one of a few pitchers this year to catch Bryce looking.
The name Bryce Harper and the words “contract year” always had an intriguingly ominous ring.
A week and change into the 2018 MLB season, they’ve had an ominous outcome as well. Not for the Washington Nationals, nor for Harper’s bank account.
But certainly for opposing pitchers.
As he marches toward what could be the most lucrative winter for any player in baseball history, Harper looks like a man on a mission.
Check out this sequence in a game between the Nationals and Cincinnati Reds. It’s indicative of how locked in Harper is and how accustomed opposing fans have become to him playing the role of beloved villain:
Washington Nationals @Nationals
1. Bryce Harper’s up… 2. Someone yells “OVERRATED.” 3. Bryce launches his SECOND HR of the game. https://t.co/BTttlni4M2
Through nine games, Harper is 10-for-28. Of those 10 hits, six have been home runs. If you’re keeping score at home, that equates to a 1.535 OPS.
“I don’t care who’s on the mound,” Harper said after homering against the New York Mets‘ Matt Harvey, against whom he’d been 2-for-29, per Jamal Collier of MLB.com. “Just trying to go out there, have good at-bats, see pitches over the plate and drive the ball.”
The Nats are 4-5 after their Sunday night loss to the Mets, which was the culmination of a three-game sweep by the Queens contingent. Harper, meanwhile, is rolling.
“Bryce is a great hitter. He’s getting even better,” veteran teammate Howie Kendrick said, per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. “It seems like the plate discipline [is] becoming even more. Not that he hasn’t known the strike zone before, but it’s impressive what he’s been doing and what he did last year.”
We’ve been eyeing this eventuality for a while. Harper’s impending foray into free agency was a simmering story almost from the moment he won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2012. By the time he was named NL MVP in 2015, it seemed like a scintillating, foregone conclusion.
Now, it’s about to happen. Barring an eleventh-hour extension, Harper will hit the open market after this season. A Brink’s truck payday awaits.
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
In the six seasons prior to this one, Harper has made five All-Star appearances and tallied 27.3 fWAR, which ranks 11th in baseball over that span.
He’s also had a range of injuries and surpassed 150 games only once in his career. Last season, he was limited to 111 games by a knee issue.
This is where we note Harper’s age. The kid—and we can credibly call him that—won’t turn 26 until Oct. 16. He’s almost six months younger than New York Yankees masher Aaron Judge.
In December 2016, USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reported Harper was angling for a deal in the neighborhood of 10 years and $400 million. MLB has never witnessed a contract in excess of $400 million before, though Giancarlo Stanton cracked the $300 million threshold with the Miami Marlins in November 2014.
In February 2016, Harper responded to the notion of a $400 million pact thusly, per Chris Lingebach of CBS DC: “Don’t sell me short.”
Teams were stingy this offseason. Some top-tier free agents, including right-hander Jake Arrieta, dangled unsigned into spring training.
That said, the luxury tax threshold is set to rise from $197 million in 2018 to $206 million in 2019. Clubs that saved their ducats could be primed to splurge.
Let’s assume Harper maintains his pace and meets or exceeds his outburst of 2015, when he tied for the NL lead with 42 home runs and posted a Bondsian 1.109 OPS. If so, he’ll be a prize worth pursuing for several deep-pocketed suitors.
The Nationals have touted outfield prospect Victor Robles, who’s marinating in the minors, but they will be compelled to make at least a token effort to re-up with their franchise player.
The Yankees should enter the sweepstakes along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and any number of mystery teams. In a free-agent class that could also include shortstop Manny Machado, left-hander Clayton Kershaw (assuming he opts out) and other luminaries, Harper stands tall.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Mix in his brash personality and “make baseball fun again” shenanigans, and he’s arguably MLB’s most marketable star. Picture him in L.A. Picture him in the Big Apple.
We’re forgetting the plight of the Nationals, who have not advanced past the division series since the franchise moved from Montreal between the 2004 and 2005 seasons. If this is Harper’s D.C. swan song, surely he’s motivated to guide the only squad he’s ever known to the promised land.
A man on a mission. A generational talent. That should add up to a ludicrous statistical output and a gargantuan contract.
It should also be an ominous sign for opposing pitchers—and an enticing storyline for the rest of us.
All statistics accurate through Sunday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
It’s just the ninth game of the season and Harper already has six home runs, which is more remarkable considering Harper has been walked 13 times in his 43 plate appearances.
Harper has two more home runs than any other player in baseball, but what stands out is that Harper has more home runs than five major league teams:
With those six home runs, Harper is also tied with the entire Reds team.
“He’s really concentrating on staying in the middle of the field,” Washington manager Dave Martinez told Buster Olney on the ESPN broadcast. “He’s got a lot of power to straightaway center. When he does that he gets really long in the strike zone, and he’s able to stay through the ball a lot longer.”
Harper followed up that first-inning shot with singles in the third and fifth innings, then walked twice. In the very early going he is hitting a robust .357/.535/1.000. That’ll play.