Diagnosting Testing: Bryce Harper

By August 10, 2014 MLB No Comments
Harper

What’s Wrong With Bryce Harper? Nothing. 

Analysis by Michael Clifford

I had a brief conversation with some other fantasy baseball writers recently and it revolved around the biggest disappointments of the 2014 season.

To be sure, there are a lot of guys that would fall into this category. Carlos Gonzalez was probably a first round pick and he’s been awful; Prince Fielder was awful and then he got hurt, too; Joe Mauer doesn’t just fall into this category, he stumbled off a prisoner transport and in Sarlacc’s Pit.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment so far this season is Bryce Harper. Depending on your draft, he was anywhere from a first to a second round pick. Personally, I had him as a top-10 pick going into this season. The thinking was that he had produced very well as a young player and that this season would be the next step. As it happens, I was so, so wrong.

Besides the obvious (the injury), what happened to Harper this year? I think the best way to do this is to see where he succeeded in previous years, where he failed this year, and what the difference has been.

2012-2013

Harper started the 2012 season in triple-A but he wasn’t long for the MLB, getting the call at the end of April. A couple things about this:

  1. Harper probably had more to prove, but he wouldn’t have toiled in the minor leagues too much longer. That said, he did post a slash line of .243/.325/.365 in 21 games at triple-A in 2012 and a .256/.329/.395 in 37 games at double-A in 2011. His promotion wasn’t because he was tearing up minor league pitching. That needs to be clear.
  2. He had one of the best age-19 seasons in the history of baseball. That 2012 season saw him post a line of .270/.340/.477. His .817 OPS is the best mark for a rookie with 500 plate appearances as a teenager.

There needs to be some context for just how good that .817 OPS is as a teenager. Here are the seasons of some other teenage phenoms, none who came close to matching Harper:

  • Mickey Mantle (386 PAs, Age 19) – .792 OPS
  • Edgar Renteria (471 PAs, Age 19) – .757 OPS
  • Ken Griffey Jr. (506 PAs, Age 19) – .748 OPS
  • Robin Yount (364 PAs, Age 18) – .622 OPS. Yount’s second season saw an OPS of .674 at Age 19.

Mantle is one of the greatest ever, Griffey Jr. is a future hall-of-famer while Yount is a current hall-of-famer. The only anomaly in there is Renteria, and he was no slouch himself. Even still, none of them match up to Harper’s Age 19 season.

The following year was even better. Harper improved his OPS from .817 to .854, a good chunk of that coming from a jump in OBP of 26 points, most of that thanks to his walk rate climbing from 9.4-percent to 12.3-percent. Again, here are the names that can be discussed in the same ballpark as Harper as far as Age 20 seasons go:

  • Willie Mays (523 PAs, Age 20) – .828 OPS
  • Ken Griffey Jr (666 PAs, Age 20) – .847 OPS
  • Ty Cobb (642 PAs, Age 20) – .848 OPS
  • Mickey Mantle (626 PAs, Age 20) – .924 OPS

There are names way at the top of the list like Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, and Mike Trout. Those names are in a class of their own. All the same, Harper’s second season was very similar to guys like Mays, and Griffey Jr, a couple of the greatest to ever play the game.

Then this year hit.

2014

Harper actually didn’t have a bad start to the year. For his 22 games in April, Harper was at .289/.352/.422 for a slash line. He would suffer a torn ligament in his left thumb at the end of the month, however, and it kept him out of action until the end of June.

Since returning from the disabled list at the end of June (118 PAs), Harper’s slash line is .218/.325/.307, a considerable drop off from what he had done through his first two seasons. Let’s keep that in a bit of context, though. A total of 118 plate appearances is essentially one full month. Has Harper ever struggled at any other point?

July 2012(111 PAs) May 2013(71 PAs) September 2013 (88 PAs) June 30 – August 6 2014 (118 PAs)
Batting Average .222 .193 .260 .218
On-base Percentage .306 .319 .333 .325
Slugging Percentage .313 .368 .351 .307
ISO .091 .175 .091 .089

Well would you look at that. Just look at it!

Harper is coming off a torn ligament in his thumb that caused him to miss two months of action and his struggles since have been mirrored in other stretches of his career to this point. Reminder: His first two seasons were among the best ever seen in baseball from the past 115 years for a player his age.

There’s also nothing in his batted ball rates to indicate that something has changed except for two key components:

harper

Notice that only two lines are significantly different from his first two seasons. First, his HR/FB rate has tanked. Second, his K-rate has sky-rocketed. Here’s the rub: Harper’s K-rate in April was 23.1-percent, considerably closer to his 19.6-percent that he posted through the 2013 season than the 27.3-percent that he sits at for this campaign as a whole.

There’s a very good chance that he’s still not right after that injury. A thumb injury a month into the season that keeps a player off the field for two months is less than ideal. Considering everything else is similar except his strikeout and HR/FB rates, I would say his full power swing still isn’t back. Maybe it doesn’t come back at all this year (I’m not betting on it).

That said, Harper has had stretches in his career before that are similar to what has happened to him lately, and he still managed to put up two of the best first two seasons for a 19-20 year old since President William McKinley was assassinated.

Step back from the ledge, people. Harper will be fine, it just might not be this year.

*As always, a big thanks to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs for their resources. 

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