What Bryce Harper Must Do in 2013 to Avoid Being Cursed by 'Sophomore Slump'
But now comes the hard part: doing it again.
Harper is about to embark on his second major league season, and that means the threat of a sophomore slump is looming over him like a dark cloud filled with anvils, tarantulas and other generally nasty things.
Not that Harper is afraid, mind you. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated asked Harper about the possibility of suffering through a sophomore slump in 2013, and Harper responded by saying something decidedly Harper-ish.
“I’m not going to put it my head," he said. "Sophomore slump? I was a sophomore in college and raked. Why can’t you rake in the big leagues?”
He didn't say it was a clown question, bro. But rest assured, he was thinking it.
Actually avoiding a sophomore slump in 2013 is going to be easier said than done, of course. There are a few things Harper is going to have to do.
Take It Easy on the Basepaths
I love a good Bryce Harper hustle play as much as the next guy. For all the talk about his power, he sure is a sight to see when he gets his motor running on the basepaths.
However, there's a difference between aggressive baserunning and reckless baserunning. Harper tended to lean more toward the latter in his rookie season.
As good as Harper was at taking extra bases in 2012, he made more outs on the basepaths than any other Nationals player. Via FanGraphs, Harper also finished with an Ultimate Base Running score of minus-0.4.
Ultimate Base Running is a stat that tracks how runners perform on the plays that aren't recounted in the box score: runners advancing on hits, balls in play, staying out of double plays, etc. UBR works by taking note of all the various opportunities runners face and gives or subtracts credit depending on how they handled them.
Harper's minus-0.4 UBR qualified him as a slightly below-average baserunner, and it placed him firmly behind excellent baserunners like Jason Heyward, Angel Pagan and (naturally) Mike Trout.
Harper's subpar baserunning in 2012 didn't necessarily drag down his overall numbers. He still had a .270/.340/.477 slash line at the end of the day, and he scored more runs than any other Nationals player. Likewise, there's a limit to how much improved baserunning will help Harper's overall numbers in 2013. He may score more runs, but that's about it.
The greater benefit will be to what's between Harper's ears. There are few things more frustrating for players than mistakes on the basepaths, and Harper made his share of those in 2012. The less frustrated Harper is in 2013 because of his baserunning, the more he'll be able to stay focused on the things that really matter.
Like, you know, hitting. Harper's already pretty good at that, but he could stand to get better.
Improve Patience and Plate Discipline
You see a lot of rookies come up and start swinging at everything they see. The good news for the Nationals is that Harper didn't follow in their footsteps in his rookie season.
Harper's approach at the plate doesn't need a drastic overhaul. Among rookies in 2012, only Trout and Yonder Alonso drew more walks than Harper, and his 20.1 strikeout percentage was hardly Adam Dunn- or Mark Reynolds-esque.
But as you would expect for a mere 19-year-old, Harper's approach at the plate did have some cracks in it that he'll have to mend in 2013.
Harper can start by working the count better, as he saw only 3.86 pitches per plate appearance in 2012. That didn't put him in the same company as free swingers like Delmon Young or Starlin Castro, but it did put him among the Hunter Pences and the Nelson Cruzes of the world (see ESPN.com).
The main thing Harper has to fix is that he has to lay off pitches he can't hit. He had a hard time doing this in 2012, swinging at 34.9 percent of the pitches he saw outside the zone and making contact only 63.2 percent of the time when he did (see FanGraphs).
That goes to show that bad-ball hitting isn't really Harper's style. He's not like Ichiro Suzuki, Erick Aybar, Jose Altuve or Jose Reyes, who all swung at more than 30 percent of the pitches they saw outside the zone and made contact more than 80 percent of the time (FanGraphs).
Laying off pitches he can't hit is a new habit that will encompass all pitches, but there's one pitch in particular that Harper needs to be extra careful about.
Beware of Curveballs
There may be no weapon in the galaxy quite so deadly as a major league curveball (and there has to be a Death Star out there somewhere, so that's saying something).
Just ask Harper. The curveball was the bane of his existence during his rookie season.
Harper didn't see many fastballs last year. In fact, the charts show that only Josh Hamilton and Alfonso Soriano, two very experienced hitters with tons of pop, saw a lower percentage of fastballs to hit than Harper in 2012 (FanGraphs).
Instead, pitchers preferred to attack Harper with breaking stuff. He saw more curveballs than most, as only 13 qualified hitters saw a higher percentage of Uncle Charlies than he did (FanGraphs).
If you watched a fair number (or a lot) of Harper's at-bats last season, right now you're being flooded with memories of him swinging over the top of a curveball that he had no business swinging at. He wasn't always good about hiding his frustration either, at one point slamming his bat down on home plate so hard after whiffing at a Ricky Nolasco curveball that he snapped the darn thing in half.
FanGraphs Pitch Values show that Harper had a 1.6 wCB last season. Zero is average. The higher above zero you get, the better you are at hitting curveballs. In 2012, for example, nobody did it better than Matt Holliday (13.2 wCB) and Prince Fielder (12.2 wCB).
Like seemingly all of Harper's less attractive numbers, his 1.6 wCB is a figure that could be a lot worse. It's also a figure that could stand to get a lot better, as he'll be a lethal hitter if he starts hitting curveballs as well or almost as well as he hits fastballs (12.8 wFB) and changeups (4.2 wCH).
While he's mastering the curveball, Harper can also master one of the lesser banes of his existence: left-handed pitchers.
Make Improvements Against Left-Handers
When the baseball gods first created baseball, they deemed that it was absolutely necessary for left-handed hitters to always be overmatched against left-handed pitchers.
Harper was no exception to the rule in 2012. He wasn't entirely hopeless against southpaws, but the .240/.300/.415 slash line he had against them pales in comparison to the .286/.360/.509 slash line he had against right-handers.
It was mainly left-handed relievers who were doing the damage against Harper, as his overall numbers against lefties would look a lot worse had he not compiled a .252/.327/.477 slash line against lefty starters. Until he gets better against lefties, there's going to be an open invitation for managers to call on their best lefty specialists whenever Harper is at the plate in a pressure situation.
That won't be a simple matter of flipping a switch, but Harper can start by cutting down on his strikeouts against lefty pitchers. He struck out over 25 percent of the time against southpaws (FanGraphs), as opposed to 17.5 percent of the time against right-handers.
Harper doesn't have to be Joey Votto—the rare left-handed hitter who does very well against lefty pitching—against left-handers in 2013. If he makes only marginal improvements, his overall numbers will be better, and he'll have shown opposing managers that there are no easy ways to beat him.
Harper will make things even tougher for opposing managers if he carries over one of his more impressive habits from 2012.
Just Keep Making Adjustments, Bro
Call Harper arrogant if you want, but he's the good kind of arrogant. That entails being more confident than cocky, and it also entails knowing when change is necessary.
Harper's not afraid of change, especially when it comes to making adjustments to his game. He proved he could do so on more than one occasion last year.
Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus pointed out (with an excellent Terminator 2 reference) in June how successfully Harper had adjusted to how he was being pitched upon first joining the Nationals in late April. The numbers reflect his success, as he went from hitting .231 with a .663 OPS in his first 14 games to hitting .347 with a 1.092 OPS over his next 26 games.
Over or under 30 home runs for Bryce Harper in 2013?
Harper made adjustments to get out of another slump later in the year when he managed just a .501 OPS over 32 games following the All-Star break.
Nats manager Davey Johnson told Amanda Comak of The Washington Times in mid-September that he had spoken to Harper about not expanding the zone, and it was right around then that Harper was enjoying his hottest stretch. He hit .327 with a 1.045 OPS and 12 home runs from Aug. 17 through the end of the year.
The book on Harper is out now. Pitchers are going to know what to throw him where and when a lot better than they did in 2012 when the book was still being written. Pitching to him is no longer an unknown.
There's only one way Harper is going to be able to combat the adjustments pitchers are going to make for him, and that's to continue making adjustments of his own.
Can he do it?
Come on, bro. That's a...
Well, you know.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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