What's Wrong with Bryce Harper After Shocking Extended Slump?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 1, 2016

May 15, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) in the dugout against the Miami Marlins during the game at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Bryce Harper was Bryce Harper?

Oh, sure. The Washington Nationals' star right fielder has occasionally looked like himself here and there in recent weeks. And before he took a wayward fastball to his right knee on Memorial Day, Harper had been showing signs of life.

But from a wider perspective, what Harper's been going through still looks like an extended slump. And since it's been going on for more than a month, it's deserving of investigative treatment.

Let's begin on April 24, a day in which Harper's follow-up to his unanimous National League MVP season in 2015 peaked with a pinch-hit, game-tying home run against the Minnesota Twins:

That was Harper's ninth home run in only 18 games, and it raised his batting line for 2016 to .323/.405/.855.

Even better, Harper's batting line over the last calendar year at that point was .336/.458/.688 with 47 home runs. At the least, he was established as baseball's most feared hitter. At the most, he had surpassed Mike Trout as baseball's best player, period.

Thus entered the slump. Harper has managed a line of just .189/.420/.326 ever since. This has happened over 33 games, which is not a small sample size. Hence, the valid usage of the word "slump."

Granted, it's not worth nothing that the 23-year-old has kept his on-base percentage as high as the sky, but this is a double-edged sword, as that OBP wouldn't exist without the Barry Bonds treatment.

A Google search will reveal how many have already noticed pitchers are refusing to pitch to Harper like they once refused to pitch to Bonds. The numbers don't throw water on the idea either. Harper's rate of pitches in the strike zone has fallen like so:

Relative to the rest of his career, Harper has never seen anything like this. Few hitters have, in fact. A zone rate that small is Pablo Sandoval and Josh Hamilton territory.

It's to Harper's credit that he hasn't given in by swinging as wildly as those two do (or used to do, anyway). His overall swing percentage has dropped from 48.7 to 38.7, and his chase percentage has dropped from 28.4 to 26.9. As a direct result, his walk rate has gone from 13.5 percent to 27.5 percent.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

But though patience is a good thing to have, it takes a lot more to make a hitter. Just ask Dusty Baker.

"I really admire Bryce for the patience and stuff that he's shown,” the Nationals skipper recently told Mark Zuckerman of MASN Sports. "But a hitter wants to hit, know what I mean? And he's gotten a few pitches to hit. Not as many as he had in the past. But he's had a few pitches to hit, where he's pulled them foul, or fouled them back."

Hitters do indeed want to hit. And though he may be getting the same treatment as Bonds, Harper is failing where the former San Francisco Giants super-duper-star succeeded.

By comparing how they've swung and made contact with pitches in the strike zone, we can see Harper has been hitting what he's been given as well as neither Bonds in his heyday nor even his own old self:

Bryce Harper vs. Barry Bonds on In-Zone Pitches
SplitZ-Swing%Z-Contact%
2002-2007 Bonds66.690.5
Early 2016 Harper72.192.1
Recent 2016 Harper60.388.3
FanGraphs

Note: Plate-discipline data for Bonds' 2001 season is not available.

Bonds didn't jump at everything he saw in the zone, but he wasn't passive and was good at making contact when he pounced. Harper, on the other hand, is suddenly way more passive in the zone and hasn't been as good at making contact when he has attacked.

It doesn't help that, as FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan pointed out in early May, pitchers have taken to exclusively and precisely working Harper on the low-and-outside corner of the zone. But good pitches to hit have been there for him, and even the man himself can admit he's failed to take advantage.

"You have to understand you may only get one or two [good] pitches a game," Harper told Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post in late May. "If you don't hit them, it's your fault."

Because Harper knows what his malfunction is, it's easy to ask why he can't overcome it. The easy answer might also be the best answer: He's letting his frustration get to him.

During his slump, we've seen Harper curse out an umpire, break a bat in anger and throw a dugout temper tantrum. He may not be himself behind the scenes either, as Boswell wrote Harper "sometimes has lacked his customary energy and seems less enthusiastic."

This could be what convinced Baker to give Harper what he called a "mental day off" on May 25, when his only responsibility was to "just concentrate and watch the game." A few days later, it is fair to wonder if that's made a difference.

Harper has slammed a couple of home runs in his last five games, after all. One was this titanic blast off St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Mike Leake:

And the other was this clout to dead center off Adam Wainwright:

Watch closely, and you'll see Harper destroy a hanging curve that was supposed to be in the dirt in the first video. In the second, he crushed a fastball that was supposed to be off the outside corner but drifted over the plate. Those were two hittable mistakes, and he made them look like hittable mistakes.

That's good news! And there's more. Though Harper's zone rate since his mental health day has stayed low at 35.4 percent, his swing rate has increased to 47.7 percent. His rate of contact within the zone, meanwhile, is sitting at 100 percent.

This sample size is way, way, way too small to conclude that Harper has officially broken out of his slump. It's also imperfect. Those homers are two of only four hits, and Harper's increased aggressiveness also comes with less discipline and more whiffs. And though his knee injury supposedly isn't serious, knee injuries of any kind are not to be trusted.

But if Harper's recent heroics aren't a breakout, they're at least a hint of one. Rather than a question of talent, him snapping out of his pitcher-induced haze has always been a question of taking initiative. That appears to be what he's doing.

If so, Bryce Harper may soon be Bryce Harper again.

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

Follow zachrymer on Twitter 

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