Bryce Harper Becoming Even Better Hitter in 2016 Than Historic MVP Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 20, 2016

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper (34) follows through on a sacrifice fly against the Miami Marlins during the fifth inning of a baseball game, Monday, April 18, 2016, in Miami. Washington Nationals center fielder Michael Taylor (3) scored on the sacrifice fly. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Anyone who came into the season thinking Bryce Harper couldn't possibly improve on his superstar-making 2015 season should know this: Harper's 2016 self is making his 2015 self look like a chump.

The Washington Nationals star slugger was already off to a hot start, carrying a .341 average, a 1.296 OPS and six home runs into Tuesday's game against the Miami Marlins. But because "hotter" is always better than just "hot," Harper helped Washington's cause in a 7-0 win with his second grand slam in the last week.

Observe and enjoy:

With that, Harper now has seven home runs. Only Colorado Rockies wunderkind Trevor Story has more, and he can't quite match Harper's .333/.429/.867 slash line. And neither can anyone else, for that matter, as his 1.295 OPS leads all qualified hitters

If that sounds familiar, that's because Harper occupied the same position in that department last year with his league-leading 1.109 OPS. He also led baseball with a .460 on-base percentage and a .649 slugging percentage. His 42 home runs, meanwhile, tied him for the National League lead.

Officially, Harper's big prize was the National League MVP, for which he was a unanimous selection. Unofficially, though, the 23-year-old's other big prize was getting that "most overrated player" monkey off his back, per ESPN The Magazine (via ESPN). When a guy has the best offensive season since Barry Bonds at his large-hatted peak, a label like that doesn't fit so well anymore.

And from the looks of things, Harper doesn't want that label to come anywhere close to him ever again.

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Nick Wass/Associated Press

It wasn't hard to determine how Harper went from being a solid .270-ish hitter with 20-homer power in his first three seasons to the most dangerous hitter in the game last season. As a former No. 1 pick, the underlying talent for such a transition was always there. The main thing he needed was good health, which he finally enjoyed in 2015.

With those boxes checked off, the next item on Harper's superstar to-do list was to improve his discipline. He checked that box by taking fewer swings and chasing fewer pitches outside the strike zone. That not only meant a whole lot more walks, but fewer strikeouts as well.

But all that was apparently just a warm-up for 2016. If last season took Harper's approach from bad to good, this season is taking it from good to great:

Bryce Harper's Plate Discipline: 2012-16
YearSwing%O-Swing%SwStr%BB%K%
2012-1450.134.812.110.421.4
201545.328.210.819.020.0
201645.524.77.016.110.7
FanGraphs

Note: Harper's Swing%, O-Swing% and SwStr% marks here haven't been updated to include Tuesday's game.

Harper is swinging roughly as often as he did in 2015, but he's not chasing or whiffing as often. He actually has more home runs (seven) than he does strikeouts (six), which is just not supposed to happen in an environment where strikeouts rule and power is oppressed.

That's the profile of a hitter who's nigh impossible for pitchers to fool, and we'll leave it to his manager to corroborate it with eyewitness testimony.

“He has an idea what they’re trying to do to him,” Nats skipper Dusty Baker told Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports earlier this month. “That’s where it starts. You have to have an idea what the opposition’s opinion of you is and what their game plan is. I think he recognizes rather quickly what their game plan is."

Harper's other big change in 2015 was embracing his best natural hitting talent and turning his power-hitter mode to 11. He put balls in the air at the highest rate of his career, traded in an all-fields approach for more of a pull-oriented approach and just hit the ball hard.

In keeping with our theme, Harper is doing all the same things in 2016, except better. With assistance from Baseball Savant for his exit velocity, here's the scoop:

Bryce Harper's Batted Balls: 2012-16
SpanFB%Pull%Avg Exit Velo (MPH)
2012-1433.535.9NA
201539.345.491.2
201660.546.294.0
FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

Harper isn't pulling the ball at a significantly higher rate than he was a year ago, but only a small handful of hitters are putting the ball in the air more often. And as his jump in exit velocity shows, contact off his bat is somehow even louder this year than it was in 2015.

All this is Harper's 2016 evolution spelled out in statistical gobbledygook. For a good practical summary, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs nailed it when he wrote that the current version of Harper is like "Joey Votto‘s control of the strike zone married to Chris Davis’ power when Chris Davis is on a hot streak."

For those who prefer ballplayer-ese, here is Jayson Werth seemingly struggling to even comprehend Harper in a chat with Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post:

Since Werth was reluctant to say it, I will: Right now, Harper is indeed the best player in baseball.

That was up for debate last year. Mike Trout went into 2015 with the "best player in baseball" crown firmly on his head, and the Los Angeles Angels center fielder maintained a strong grip on it with a .991 OPS, 41 home runs and solid defense in center field.

But Harper actually topped Trout in wins above replacement last year, and there's no ignoring the present reality of his pseudo-rivalry with Trout. Whereas Trout's best season is still his big breakthrough back in 2012, Harper's own big breakthrough is ongoing and only gaining momentum.

In the long run, maybe it'll result in some record-breaking history. In the meantime, there should be plenty of history for Harper to make in the short run.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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