Struggling or stellar? What to make of Harper?

Numbers tell differing stories of slugger's difficulties this season

May 29th, 2018

"You know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It's 25 hits. Twenty-five hits in 500 at-bats is 50 points. OK? There's six months in a season, that's about 25 weeks, that means if you get just one extra flare a week -- just one -- a gork, you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes, you get a dying quail. Just one more dying quail a week and you're in Yankee Stadium!"
-- Crash Davis, "Bull Durham."
is drowning. You look at that batting average -- it's down to .228. After he got off to a good start, he's hitting below .200 over the past month or so. In that stretch, he's striking out once per game. He's also, by the advanced measurements, playing subpar defense, and his Statcast™ sprint speed is way down, placing him firmly below average after always being somewhat above average.
What is going on with Bryce Harper?
Harper is also thriving. Look: He leads the National League in home runs. He leads the league in walks. His hard-hit percentage -- which counts balls hit 95 mph or faster -- is at 49 percent, the highest rate of his career.

So what gives? Is Harper struggling or is he just hitting into bad luck?
The drunken Crash Davis who gave the soliloquy at the top was absolutely right. While we like to think of baseball as a game of the long season where the numbers tell the story, it is still just a hit or so a week that separates a .250 and .300 hitter. We track the game so precisely, which is a part of baseball's beauty. When a player hits .290 one year and .278 the next, we just assume the player had a down year.
The difference is one lousy hit a month.
The difference between awesome Harper and lousy Harper is razor thin. We begin with lousy Harper: He absolutely is swinging and missing more this year than before and, disconcertingly, a lot of those pitches are in the strike zone. His contact percentage on pitches in the zone is way down, from 83 percent over the course of his career to just 75 percent this year.

A couple of pitchers have commented to me that they believe for the first time that you can blow a fastball by Harper. That might be just brave talk, but it is true that Harper is hitting just .257 against fastballs this year. That's nuts for one of the great fastball hitters in the game. He hit .363 on fastballs last year and .365 in his NL MVP Award-winning season of 2015.
Well, the fastball thing is more complicated than it appears at first glance. But we'll get to that.
What's not complicated is that Harper struggles against sliders. A good slider has long been Harper's kryptonite, but only if you can get him to chase. Harper is chasing less this year, one of the reasons why he leads the league in walks. When he does swing at the slider, he's basically helpless. He's hitting .162 and slugging .270 on breaking balls. He's had similar difficulties with off-speed stuff.
So all this seems to point to a simple conclusion: Bryce Harper is flailing.
But is he? You'll notice I keep using batting average, which is an imperfect stat to say the least. See, Harper is hitting into some significant bad luck. Statcast™ figures an expected batting average based on a player's quality of contact. Harper's expected batting average is .287. His expected slugging percentage is a Lou Gehrig-like .651. In other words, he's still crushing the ball.

A look at his Statcast™ barrels tells a story. A Statcast™ barrel is basically the ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle. Between 2015-17, Harper hit .864 on his barrels (102-for-118). Eighty of his 102 barrel hits were home runs. You get the point. A barrel is usually an extra-base hit.
But this year, Harper has already made seven outs on barrels -- remember he only made 16 outs on barrels over the past three seasons. You might think seven outs isn't much, but remember Crash Davis' mantra. With just five more hits, Harper would be hitting .256, his on-base percentage would be close to .400, and the season would feel different.
Those barrels are not the only bad luck for Harper this year. He's among the league leaders in hard-hit percentage -- hits with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher. Basically, half the balls he hits fair are "hard hit." That percentage is 15th in baseball, right behind , who you might know is having a legendary season.
The league hits .457 on hard-hit balls that are not barrels. Harper is hitting 150 points below that. There are another seven or eight hits here that he is simply not getting because the defense is robbing him or he's just not catching any breaks. That's what I meant that the fastball thing was complicated. He's still crushing fastballs; his expected batting average on them is .315. But he's not getting the results.

So now we ask the opposite question: Does this mean that there's really nothing wrong with Bryce Harper and he will obviously turn things around as the odds even out? Well, I don't know if that's quite right, either. Baseball is such a mental game. Hitting requires unconditional confidence. Fielding requires immense concentration. And, hitting into bad luck, swinging and missing, it can back up on people, even people as uncommonly confident as Harper.
Harper struck out four times on Saturday, and after one of the whiffs, he attacked the bat rack.

The next day, Harper hit without batting gloves in an effort to change his luck.
This stuff can wear a player out. Harper knows this as well as anyone. In 2015, he made his case for best player in baseball. In '16, he had a terrible season, nothing seemed to go right. Many believe he was hurt. Harper insists he wasn't. It was just a lost season. Those can happen.
The good news for Harper and his fans is that, hey, he's clearly healthy, and when he makes contact he's hitting rockets. If he can keep hitting the ball this hard, the odds will probably even out for him. What Bryce Harper probably needs most is a gork, a ground ball with eyes, a flare, just to remind him that the breaks go both ways.