Bryce Harper's Path to Breakout MVP-Caliber Season in 2014

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Bryce Harper's Path to Breakout MVP-Caliber Season in 2014
Nick Wass/AP Images

Allow me to tell you about one thing I'm not sure of and two things I am sure of.

The thing I'm not sure of: whether Bryce Harper will be my pick for the 2014 National League MVP. It's still early for such things.

As for the two things I am sure of:

  1. I did last year.
  2. Harper certainly has MVP potential.

In 2012, the young Washington Nationals slugger won NL Rookie of the Year on the strength of a .270/.340/.477 line and 22 homers in 139 games. All at the tender age of 19. Harper actually got better at the plate in 2013, batting .274/.368/.486 with 20 home runs in 118 games. With an rWAR of 9.0, he's one of the all-time great WAR heroes through the age of 20.

So yeah, it's kinda scary that we can look at Harper and say with a straight face, "Hmmm...when do you think his breakout is coming?" He's already accomplished a lot, but, well, people like you and I tend to expect more from a guy who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old.

Perhaps Harper's big, MVP-sized breakout will come this year. If it does, it will be because several things happened.

 

Thing 1: He Stayed Healthy

Remember when Harper came out of the 2012 All-Star break and managed just a .501 OPS over 32 games? It looked then like the league was figuring him out. 

But then this happened:

When Bryce Harper Caught Fire
Split PA HR AVG OBP SLUG OPS
Last 49 G of 2012* 202 13 .303 .355 .627 .982
First 25 G of 2013 103 9 .356 .437 .744 1.181

Baseball-Reference.com

*That includes the 2012 postseason.

Around the middle of August in 2012, something clicked. Harper was on a tear down the stretch in 2012 and didn't let up at the outset of 2013. He had been built up as a future superstar, and it looked like the superstar had arrived.

I put the cutoff for 2013 at 25 games, however, because it was in Harper's 26th game that he crashed into an outfield fence in Atlanta. Shortly after that, this happened at Dodger Stadium:

Harper was dinged up after the first collision. He was dinged up even more after the second collision, eventually going on the disabled list in late May with a bad left knee.

That was pretty much the end of what once looked like a possible MVP season. Harper managed a modest .789 OPS after he returned from the DL in July, and by September he admitted that he had been playing hurt the whole time.

Harper eventually went in for knee surgery after the season was over. And judging from what he had to say at NatsFest, what he went through in 2013 forced him to put things in perspective. According to Sarah Kogod of The Washington Post, Harper's looking to be a "little bit smarter" in 2014.

“I don’t want to run into another wall,” he said. “That killed me for the whole season. Having 15 stitches and having my knee all messed up and things like that, I don’t wanna do."

I'll take a wild guess and say that Harper is partially motivated by the fact that being hurt sucks. But I'm also guessing that he can see just as clearly as the rest of us how dangerous he was getting to be. Before his injuries intervened, his talent was leading the way.

Assuming that talent is still in there somewhere, it stands to reason that good health alone could be a huge factor in Harper putting up big numbers in 2014. But if he ends up with MVP-caliber numbers, it will probably be because he improved in other areas as well.

Such as...

 

Thing 2: He Showed Off Even More Opposite-Field Power

Harper has pull power and power up the middle taken care of. According to FanGraphs, 34 of his 42 career homers have either gone out to right field or center field.

But don't sleep on Harper's opposite-field power. Eight homers the other way is pretty good for a guy who's only through his age-20 season, and what's there is already on the right track.

Here are the splits:

Bryce Harper's Opposite-Field Power
Season AB HR FB% HR/FB ISO
2012 129 3 40.8 5.7 .171
2013 77 5 57.7 11.1 .247

FanGraphs

It's good that Harper hit more balls in the air the other way. It's even better that he wasn't wasting his time with those, as his HR/FB rate to left field also rose. In the end, these dingers were a major contribution to a much-improved .247 Isolated Power to the opposite field.

It's not a fluke that this happened. Oppo power is one of those things that tends to come with experience, but increased strength also helps. We know that Harper had that in 2013, as he reported to spring training 20 pounds heavier than his playing weight in 2012.

Another year, same old story. Harper said in early January, via Anna McDonald of ESPN.com, that he was looking to come into spring training at around 240 or 245 pounds. He would lose a lot of that weight throughout the season but would still likely end up bigger than he had been in 2013.

More weight can only help Harper's power, and one of the telltale signs that it did would be even more power the other way in 2014.

Another thing to watch is...

 

Thing 3: He Mastered Right-Handed Curveballs

Harper owns a .905 OPS over 734 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers. He's not exactly out of his depth against them.

A big reason why is because he handles pretty much everything righties can throw at him. Per Brooks Baseball, it's like this:

Bryce Harper vs. RH Weapons
Pitch Count AB AVG ISO
Four-Seam 869 147 .272 .191
Sinker 615 135 .333 .282
Change 392 114 .281 .211
Slider 347 84 .250 .310
Cutter 159 29 .448 .552
Split 166 50 .280 .300

Brooks Baseball

Those are some impressive numbers. I like the cutter numbers in particular, though I can't say they surprise me given what we know about Ron Harper's cutter per this tweet from Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post.

But maybe you noticed the key omission from that table: Where are the curveballs?

Yeah...about that. I figure it's best to just show you this:

Bryce Harper vs. RH Curveballs
Year Count Swing Whiff/Swing GB/BIP BABIP AVG ISO
2012 211 43.13% 35.16% 51.52% .313 .220 .180
2013 171 43.86% 29.33% 69.23% .320 .243 .081

Brooks Baseball

Harper hasn't been completely baffled by right-handed curveballs but hasn't quite figured them out yet either. It's particularly discouraging that the progress he made in 2013 wasn't worth all that much. He made more contact against righty hooks, but not good contact. That's a pretty high ground-ball rate.

Now, sure, one thing about the 2013 data is that it's heavily influenced by Harper's nearly year-long struggle with injuries. In his first 25 games, he had three hits against righty curveballs and was generally looking better against them than he had been in 2012. Had he stayed healthy, who knows?

All the same, I'm guessing the book on Harper for righties recommends curveballs when appropriate. He should expect righties to be comfortable going to their hooks until he proves he can hit them.

If he does, then he'll have right-handers pretty well covered. But if he's going to be truly unstoppable...

 

Thing 4: He Hit Lefties

It's hard enough for a lefty-hitting veteran with 10 years of experience to hit left-handed pitching. We really shouldn't be surprised that Harper, a 21-year-old with two years of experience, hasn't mastered lefty pitching.

The good news, however, is that this is yet another area where Harper made some strides in 2013:

Bryce Harper vs. LHPs
Year PA BB% K% AVG OBP ISO
2012 202 7.4 25.2 .240 .300 .175
2013 158 13.3 22.2 .214 .327 .107

FanGraphs

You can look at that average and that ISO and say that Harper regressed against lefties last year. But it's a good sign that his on-base percentage against them went up, and it's also good that his walks went up and his strikeouts went down. If we make things simple, that says he was seeing lefties better.

Where it gets even better is that Harper actually managed most lefty pitches pretty well. According to Brooks Baseball, he hit .307 with a .160 ISO against the hard stuff. He was passable against curves with a .214 average and .143 ISO. He hit only .154 with no extra-base hits against offspeed pitches, but that's not too big of a concern given that lefty pitchers don't throw many changeups to lefty hitters.

Against sliders, however...well, you better take a look at this:

Bryce Harper vs. LH Sliders
Year Count Swing Whiff/Swing GB/BIP BABIP AVG ISO
2012 188 47.87% 51.11% 33.33% .429 .243 .135
2013 145 52.41% 51.32% 75.00% .059 .033 0

Brooks Baseball

If we take a look at Brooks Baseball, we can see that these sliders tended to end up in the same place in 2013. About where you'd expect: low and away.

TexasLeaguers.com can show that Harper often obliged by swinging the bat:

Image courtesy of TexasLeaguers.com.

This is yet another area where it's hard to begrudge the guy. Any lefty hurler with a good slider knows he can make the lefty hitter at the plate look silly if he spins one away from him. Harper's no different.

But still, he needs to be better than he's been at picking these sliders up and laying off them. Easier said than done, to be sure, but he ought to have a pretty good idea when they're coming in 2014. Like with the righty curveballs, he should know from experience what the book on him must say.

All in all, I'd say that Harper's chances of having an MVP-caliber season will be good enough if he just manages to stay healthy in 2014. I mean, shoot, we all saw what he was doing before he got hurt. He had turned into a monster.

But if Harper stays healthy and hits for more oppo power and solves righty curveballs and handles lefties better, he'll be a lot worse than a monster.

He'll be a destroyer of worlds. 

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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