Can Bryce Harper Put Up Elite Power Numbers Without Piling Up Strikeouts?

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Can Bryce Harper Put Up Elite Power Numbers Without Piling Up Strikeouts?
Associated Press

When Bryce Harper was a prospect, we heard all about how he might one day blossom into one of the elite power hitters in baseball, if not the elite power hitter in baseball.

That hasn't happened yet. But heading into 2014, the 21-year-old Washington Nationals star is certainly looking the part.

If you haven't seen it yet, here's the image that took the Internet by storm last week:

As Nats outfielder Denard Span put it to the Washington Post: "He looks like Brian Urlacher out there playing left field."

Now, we really shouldn't lose sight of how Harper has proven himself to be a legitimately well-rounded player. Besides which, a lot of the weight Harper has on now will be coming off as the year goes along. 

Even still, Harper's elite power potential has always been his calling card. And as of now, I'll be damned if he doesn't have the look of a guy on a mission to turn that potential into reality this year by going out there and blasting 35 or 40 bombs. 

At the back of my mind, however, is a thought...

If Harper does indeed boost his power numbers to elite levels this year, is he doomed to also suffer an increase in strikeouts? Thus becoming, you know, a stereotypical power hitter?

I'd call this more of a nagging concern than a serious concern. Strikeouts don't have the same kind of stigma that they used to, for one, and it is possible to be a high-strikeout guy and a hugely productive hitter. Look at Chris Davis. Or Giancarlo Stanton. Or Ryan Howard back in the day. 

But this is still a discussion worth having because we know strikeouts can hold hitters back. More strikeouts means fewer balls in play, and any hitter putting fewer balls in play is going to have a harder time hitting for average. 

To give you an idea: Of the 24 qualified batters who hit .300 last year, FanGraphs can show that only two (Chris Johnson and Paul Goldschmidt) struck out more than the league average for hitters (19.3 percent). 

The good news is that Harper's not already a high-strikeout guy. According to FanGraphs, his K% dropped from 20.1 in 2012 to 18.9 last year, a figure better than the league average for hitters.

It's clear enough from looking at Harper's plate discipline data that it's no fluke that he doesn't have a strikeout problem:

Bryce Harper's Plate Discipline
Season Swing% O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2012 50.2 34.9 74.6 63.2 86.0 76.3 11.7
2013 49.3 34.1 74.8 65.5 86.1 77.2 10.9

FanGraphs

Harper got slightly better at everything, from being more aggressive inside the zone than out to also being better at making contact both in and out of the zone.

This is all encouraging stuff, as it goes to show that Harper's not just some brute with a vicious swing. He has a remarkably measured approach at the plate for a player his age. He doesn't fit the description of a guy who's bound to start striking out a lot.

But at the same time, Harper's past is only so predictive. It applies to the hitter he's been, not the hitter he might be in 2014. If he combines added strength, experience and, hopefully, good health, he's going to be a much more consistent and, indeed, much more dangerous power source.

And that, most likely, would result in him being pitched differently. It's hard to imagine pitchers being more cautious about going inside the strike zone given that Harper already boasts an alarmingly low 38.0 career Zone%, but there could very well be a change in the diet of pitchers Harper is fed.

If we look into his past for clues, what we find is...Yeah, maybe.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

As I've noted in a past article, there was a stretch where Harper did look like he had come into his own as a hitter: over the last 49 games of 2012 (including the postseason) and the first 25 games of 2013.

In that 74-game stretch, Hot Harper slashed .320/.382/.665 with 22 home runs. That's compared to Not-Hot Harper's .248/.335/.363 slash line in 188 other games.

Here's where I decided to go all Sherlock Holmes on some data from Brooks Baseball and found this:

Not-Hot Harper's Pitches vs. Hot Harper's Pitches (Part I)
Pitch Type Not-Hot Harper % Hot Harper %
Fourseam 28.7 25.6
Sinker 19.7 21.9
Change 9.9 11.4
Slider 16.1 13.3
Curve 12.1 14.9
Cutter 8.0 6.8
Split 4.0 4.1

Brooks Baseball

Not too much is clear here, but one does notice that Hot Harper saw fewer four-seam fastballs, more changeups and more curveballs. About what you'd expect for a hot hitter, and a sign that, yeah, Harper was being pitched slightly different when he was at his hottest.

Obviously, these changes couldn't keep Hot Harper from demolishing the ball. That's in part because he handled the increase in sinkers by hitting them to the tune of a .351 ISO, and the increase in changeups by hitting them to the tune of a .306 ISO.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

But the increase in curveballs? Not so much. Hot Harper whiffed on 42.7 percent of the curves he swung at and hit the them to the tune of a .205 average and .114 ISO.

The majority of those were righty curveballs, a pitch I noted in the aforementioned article as one that's been a particular pain in Harper's back. Even Hot Harper couldn't hit them well, whiffing on 38.1 percent of the ones he swung at. He hit just .235 with a .147 ISO on the ones he hit.

Righty curveballs aren't the only pitch Harper has tended to struggle with. Sliders from lefty pitchers also give Harper fits, and Hot Harper didn't solve that problem either. He hit only hit .250 with one extra-base hit against lefty sliders, whiffing on 52.2 of the ones he swung at.

Pitchers are smart. So are pitching coaches. The hotter Harper gets in 2014, the more willing they're going to be to devise more cautious game plans and dig deeper into the scouting reports for anything they can use.

Based on his whole case history and what happened even when he was at his hottest, the safe bet is that Harper will start being fed a more steady diet of breaking balls if he does end up turning his power to 11 in 2014. This alone could keep him from advancing forward in the strikeout department.

But there's another thing that has to be noted: When Harper was at his best, he coincidentally wasn't facing much left-handed pitching.

It's like this:

Not-Hot Harper's Pitches vs. Hot Harper's Pitches (Part II)
Split Not-Hot Harper Hot Harper
% Lefty Pitches 35.0 25.3
% Righty Pitches 65.0 74.7

Brooks Baseball

If Harper does become an elite power hitter in 2014, he's presumably not going to get to feast on as much right-handed pitching as Hot Harper did. If the numbers don't level out on their own, they'll surely get a boost from managers being more proactive in using their best lefty relievers against Harper.

Having to face more left-handed pitching is yet another thing that could block Harper from keeping his strikeouts down. As do most lefty hitters, Harper just doesn't see lefties as well as he sees righties.

Via FanGraphs:

Harper's K% vs. LHP and RHP
Year K% vs. LHP K% vs. RHP
2012 25.2 17.5
2013 22.2 17.4
Total 23.9 17.4

FanGraphs

So the potential for more matchups against left-handed pitchers? Yeah, not quite ideal.

And this brings us, I suppose, to the bottom line.

Based on both his natural talent and his impressive physical prowess, I do think it's possible that Harper can bloom into a 35-40 home run guy in 2014. But based on the things we just looked at, I think it's probable that the trade-off for more power would indeed be more strikeouts. Harper has proven enough in the plate-discipline department, but one is skeptical about what will happen if he faces an increased diet of breaking stuff and matchups against lefty pitchers.

The bright side is that it's all relative. Since Harper's a relatively low-strikeout guy now, him becoming a high-strikeout guy would very likely entail his K% going slightly over 20 percent rather than closer to 30 percent with the Pedro Alvarezes and Adam Dunns of the world. Though strikeouts could well become a bigger part of Harper's game, it's hard to see them becoming a problem to a point where they're totally ruining his other numbers.

And if those other numbers are there...Well, we're probably not even going to notice the strikeouts.

 

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

 

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

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