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Shift in approach helping Harper heat up

Phillies' slugger finally finding success pulling the ball
@mike_petriello
August 17, 2019

On Tuesday, the Phillies dismissed hitting coach John Mallee, known for his heavy usage of data and analytics, and replaced him on a temporary basis with longtime former manager Charlie Manuel. You know what happened next: The Phillies swept the Cubs, punctuated by Bryce Harper's walk-off grand slam. In three

On Tuesday, the Phillies dismissed hitting coach John Mallee, known for his heavy usage of data and analytics, and replaced him on a temporary basis with longtime former manager Charlie Manuel.

You know what happened next: The Phillies swept the Cubs, punctuated by Bryce Harper's walk-off grand slam. In three games, Harper hit three home runs with a .364/.462/1.182 line, but that includes an 0-for-4 on Tuesday night before Manuel had even arrived yet, so in two games with Manuel, Harper had three homers, and the narrative you're probably hearing on Philadelphia sports radio writes itself:

Manuel's old-school ways fixed Harper. Mallee stuffed him with too many numbers.

Manuel has been a respected hitting coach for decades, and the Phillies offense -- including Harper -- under Mallee hadn't exactly been firing all on cylinders, so it's very possible that the Philadelphia offense will indeed show some added life. But it's also entirely too simplistic to say that the coaching change is what turned around Harper's season, if that's in fact what ends up happening, because Harper has actually been red-hot for weeks -- and we might be able to explain why.

For example: After an 0-for-4 in Philadelphia's 15-7 loss to Atlanta on July 27, Harper's seasonal line sat at .253/.366/.465, an OPS of .830. In 17 games before Friday's win (in which he homered for the third straight game), he's hit .250/.423/.650, an OPS of 1.073. (Yes, the batting average is down and the production is way up. Don't worry too much about batting average.)

If we put that in visual form, it looks like this, on a chart showing Expected wOBA -- a Statcast metric which looks at exit velocity and launch angle, along with strikeouts and walks, to grade the quality of a hitter's contact -- you can see that the underlying increase began around the beginning of the month, just as his OBP and slugging began to improve.

OK, so: What's fueling that? Harper made some small changes to his stance recently, though he claims it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Statistically, there's a few obvious things you'd expect to see, and most of them are present here. If we set that July 27 date as the cutoff, he's striking out less (27% to 23%), his hard-hit rate is up (45% to 57%), and he's walking more (15% to 22%). Those are are all good things, none terribly surprising. But why?

Let's show you another chart, one that mirrors his hot streak almost exactly. It shows you his rate of pulling the ball.

The fact that those two images match up so well leads us to a fascinating hypothesis: What if Harper just decided to stop being bothered by the shift? What if he finally got to the point that the best way to beat it is not to go around it, but to go through it?

It's not that far-fetched. There's compelling evidence that the long -- and seemingly finished -- slump of Cleveland's José Ramírez came because of a failed effort to go opposite field against the shift. As Texas's Joey Gallo asked ESPN earlier this year: "if I'm slapping singles down the line, am I still Joey Gallo? Am I still productive?" He stopped trying to bother, and it led to an MVP-caliber season before he got hurt.

That being the case, is it that unreasonable that Harper might consider the same, especially after the number of Harper/shift-related headlines over the years? Here's one, and another, and another. Here's his agent, Scott Boras, attempting to explain away some 2018 Harper troubles. There are dozens more like this, as he's watched shifts more than double against him from 2016's 27.7% of plate appearances to this year's 62.8%.

But while the shift may have begun as a way to steal singles from lefty hitters, it's most effective when used as a mind game, when you can make dangerous hitters choose to turn themselves into something less than their best versions. Remember back in Spring Training, when a few teams deployed four-man outfields against Harper? His Philadelphia mates summed up the situation best:

"As soon as you try to do something different, they win,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “If I’m trying to hit a ground ball to the right side, then they’ve done their job and I’m not doing mine."

"The opposition is doing their job if they change his swing," said Phillies advisor Larry Bowa. "You’re saying, ‘OK, I’ll give you a ground ball to left field. We won that one.’ That’s the whole mindset -- to mess with your head.”

That's exactly right. That's what Gallo learned, and that's what Ramírez learned. Maybe we can see if Harper did the same, because when you look at the pre- and post-July 27 heatmaps, it's pretty clear that the rate at which he's pulling the ball has changed greatly.

We should be able to put some of this to the test. If he's just worried about making the best possible contact he can, as hard as he can, and not worrying about trying to place the ball, then we should see more than just a higher pull percentage. We might expect to see changes in how hard he's hitting it, and perhaps how high he's hitting it, especially if there was previous intent to go for grounders to beat the shift.

After all, he had 10 opposite-field grounders against the shift through July 27... and just one since. If you think trying to go opposite field early caused teams to stop shifting him, it didn't. With the bases empty, he saw the shift on 66.8%% of pitches through July 27; since then, it's 76.1%. Going opposite field just made teams want to shift him more.

As it turns out, we are seeing some of those changes.

Harper, with the shift on

Pulling the ball through 7/27 -- 41.4% hard-hit rate, 50% grounder rate

Pulling the ball since 7/28 -- 63.6% hard-hit rate, 45% grounder rate

Center/oppo through 7/27 -- 47.6% hard-hit rate, 36% grounder rate

Center/oppo since 7/28 -- 75% hard-hit rate, 25% grounder rate

What you're seeing there is that he's hitting it a lot harder everywhere, and that he's also hitting it in the air more. That's a big deal, remember, because as we dug into several months ago, even at his lowest, very few batters hit the ball in the air as hard as Harper does. (His 97.4 mph exit velocity on flies and liners is currently fifth best, just behind Christian Yelich. When he pulls it in the air, that's up to 99.8 mph, essentially tied with Pete Alonso.)

It's been something of an up-and-down season for Harper in Philadelphia, obviously, though he's come up the largest in the biggest moments -- his 1.093 OPS with runners on base is the sixth best in the Majors, with Mike Trout and Yelich two of the five ahead of him -- and there's ample evidence that he's been one of the most "clutch" players in the game this year.

It's not enough, obviously. For players, being 22% above average as a hitter and the 45th best batter in the game would be a wonderful thing. But given the outsized expectations and the enormous contract, that's not how it's gone for Harper. Moments like Thursday's help; he'll need a lot more of them.

But again: Since this hot streak started on July 28, his OBP and SLG are up by a lot, and his batting average is down. That's a good thing. The shift can hurt your average, and that frustrates a lot of hitters. But the worst thing they can let it do is to cause them to change their games so much that it takes away the things they do best, too. We saw Gallo and Ramírez get over that. We might be seeing Harper get over it too. After all, the opponents want him to not be himself.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.