Will the real Bryce Harper ...
Today's scary thought: What if THIS is who Bryce Harper is?
Last season, I went to Washington and watched Harper play a few games against Tampa Bay, San Francisco, etc. ... and it was shocking. I'm a big Harper fan. He's one of those rare players who -- because of his personality, his talent, the hype surrounding him and any number of other things -- is just a little bit larger than life. There are players you go to the ballpark to watch. Harper is one of those.
So, yes, it was shocking -- not that he struggled, that's always a possibility in baseball. No, the shocking part was the utter disdain that the pitchers showed for him. He didn't concern them in the least. They didn't bother to move him off the plate or try to set him up with a well-coordinated series of different pitches. No, they threw fastballs and sliders -- mostly fastballs. And, as often as not, they threw those fastballs by him.
This utterly blew my mind. When Bryce Harper was Bryce Harper -- and, admittedly, this is an ever-shrinking period of time but let's say 2015, 2017 and various Aprils of other seasons -- you didn't dare throw the guy a fastball. He was like the slugger in Rookie of the Year: He ate fastballs for breakfast.
In 2015, Harper hit .352 and slugged .700 on fastballs.
In 2017, Harper hit .360 and slugged .658 on fastballs.
Forget it. The way to get Harper out was to get ahead in the count (maybe, if you were lucky, you could get him to foul off a fastball or two) and then get him chasing the breaking stuff. Bill James has written about how George Brett -- after his extraordinary 1980 season -- went about three years before seeing another fastball. That's how I expected it to go with Harper.
But in 2018, rather suddenly, he couldn't catch up with the fastball. That lasted for four months. Yes, Harper did crush fastballs in August and September to somewhat rescue his season -- the guy was hitting .218 on July 28 -- but the whole thing was still mystifying. You just don't see 25-year-old superstars suddenly and completely lose their ability to catch up to a fastball for months at a time.
Then, Harper has always been mercurial. He spent his first three seasons in the big leagues flashing potential but, mostly, treading water. Before the 2015 season began, there was a thought experiment going around Dodgers camp: Would you trade Yasiel Puig straight up for Bryce Harper?
It seems silly now, but at the time Harper was 22 and over three injury-plagued seasons he hit .272/.351/.465, hardly legendary numbers.
Puig, meanwhile, was 24 but had a .305/.386/.502 career line in a tougher ballpark. He had already made a name for himself as difficult, which is why the thought experiment question was being asked in the first place. But the point is, Harper was much more potential than reality.
Then, in 2015, the potential became reality, and he had his Musial season, the one everyone had been waiting for -- .330/.460/.649, led league in homers and runs, won the MVP unanimously, etc. Mike Trout suddenly had competition for best player in baseball honors ...
... only, he didn't. Because in 2016, inexplicably, Harper dropped off the planet. The rumor all year (which he denied) was that he was hurt, and this might have explained part of it. But a drop of almost 100 points in batting average? More than 200 points in slugging? A dramatic step backward in defense? What the heck happened?
In, 2017, he was Harper again -- back over 1.000 OPS, leading the league in a bunch of different things in mid-August when he was got hurt -- and everything seemed right again. No, he wasn't the same when he came back late in the year, but it made sense that he just wasn't recovered. Everyone knew that 2018 would be a mind-blowing season.
Then, in 2018, he collapsed.
And now we're six or so weeks into the 2019 season ... and it's even worse. Normally, a .219/.370/.432 line through 41 games wouldn't matter too much, and I don't want to make a huge deal out of it now either. In 1980, the year Brett almost hit .400, he was hitting .247 in mid-May.
But as a continuing trend for Harper, it's more than just a little bit worrisome. Harper can't hit a fastball again. He's hitting .224 on fastballs so far this year. He's even worse on breaking stuff. His swing and miss rate is dramatically higher than it has ever been, particularly on balls outside the strike zone. Last year, he swung and missed 44.6 of his offerings at pitches out of the strike zone -- the highest percentage of his career.
This year, when he swings at pitches out of the zone, he's missing a staggering 52% of the time. He's one of only 15 regulars in baseball who swing and miss more than half the time on those pitches out of the zone.
He's also swinging and missing a lot at pitches in the zone -- more than 22% of the time, again among the worst rates in baseball.
Add in his continuing defensive struggles and his declining speed ... yeah, it's scary stuff. Sure, you have to believe he will get hot at some point and counter some of this madness. Sure, you can convince yourself that he's just getting comfortable and is about to go on a five-year tear that will leave everyone breathless.
But each day that goes by makes you wonder -- what's really happening here? The guy just signed a THIRTEEN YEAR deal. and yet, three of his last five years have been sub-2-WAR seasons. A quarter of the way through this year, he's on his way to another one of those.
And, not to get ahead of ourselves, but let's ask: How many players have put up four seasons between 1 and 2 WAR in those prime years between ages 21 and 26? I'm not going to lie to you -- it's a pretty bleak list. Only three players have done it since the end of World War II:
Gary Geiger, who had five such seasons between 1959-1963. Geiger was a useful enough player who might be best known for hitting the big home run in a Bob Costas Strat-o-Matic game. But the reason that Costas story is fun in the first place is BECAUSE he was Gary Geiger.
Christian Guzman, a speedy shortstop who regularly led the league in triples, did it four times. He is not a great comp for Harper.
Dave Kingman. Yeah. Kong. You don't like comparing Harper to Kong because it's never an apples-to-apples comp; Harper walks about 500 times more often. But in 1975, when Kong was 26, he hit .231, slugged .494, mashed 36 home runs and played moderately subpar defense.
That's basically the direction Harper is heading right now.
The most troubling part of it all is that nobody seems at all sure WHY Harper has become this walking, whiffing, subpar outfielder. There isn't an injury to point at. There isn't a specific adjustment that everyone is talking about for him. He plays every day. What gives? Tuesday, he had another of what is becoming a prototypical Harper day.
In the first inning, he laid off a couple of close pitches and drew a five-pitch walk.
In the third, he drew a four-pitch walk.
In the sixth, he swung through a 95-mph middle-middle fastball, fouled off a 96-mph fastball on the outside corner and swung through a 97 mph fastball that was up and should have been in his sweet zone.
In the ninth, he fouled off a fastball, fouled off two breaking balls and struck out on a slider in the dirt.
It's not pretty. He leads all of baseball in strikeouts, including Joey Gallo. And he looks lost ... has looked lost with regularity for more than a year.
And because we don't know what is happening with him, there's no telling what will flip on the light, what will turn things around. I keep expecting it to change. If Harper hits four home runs in his next game, I would nod and think: "OK, yeah, there we go, there's the Harper we know." If I had to bet, I'd probably still bet on Harper going on a crazy hot streak and ending the season with good numbers.
But the longer this goes on, the more he makes me think of that Maya Angelou quote: When someone shows you who they are, believe them."