When the Washington Nationals selected Bryce Harper 1st overall in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft, the only questions anybody seemed to have were how quickly will this kid develop into a superstar and what position will he play. The D.C. brass answered question #2 fairly quickly, deciding to move Harper from catcher to the outfield in hopes that his power, speed, and bazooka arm would hold up better without the rigors of working behind the plate daily. After 130 largely successful minor league games (only 21 at Triple-A) and with the need for another outfielder at the big league level, Washington called the 19-year-old prodigy up to the show.
Harper immediately made a large impression, showing off a multifaceted game that included excellent home-to-first speed, a highlight-making arm, and big-time power, especially at such a young age. Harper’s first month in the big leagues was a roaring success as he posted a .286/.372/.514 line with 4 homers, 11 RBI, and the ability to make scouts and fans drool by making highlight plays including a steal of home off Cole Hammels. He continued his success throughout the rest of the first half and was given entry as an injury replacement at the All-Star game in Kansas City.
But since the 2nd half began, Harper has been an absolute mess at the plate, hitting just .194/.268/.319 in 172 plate appearances, which has dropped his season totals to .248/.320/.412 (99 OPS+) and his power numbers have stagnated as well, leaving Harper with 12 homers.
Harper has struggled to hit left-handed pitching all year and over the past month his problem against southpaws has only gotten worse. He’s hitting .220/285/.373 off lefties on the season, with just 4 homers in 167 plate appearances. The problem has gotten so bad that National’s manager Davey Johnson is considering a platoon with Harper and Tyler Moore/Roger Bernadina. Harper’s problem with lefties shouldn’t be cause for too much concern in Washington because it’s perfectly normal for rookies to struggle, especially when they are only 19.
Another one of Harper’s biggest issues, and a more pressing one, has been his impatience at the plate. The rookie has only drawn 1 walk in his last 51 plate appearances and opposing pitchers are starting to take notice, frequently getting the rookie to chase out of the zone. The strikeouts are starting to pile up as well, as Harper’s strikeout ratio has jumped from below league average (19%), to just above league average (20.9%).
This is a direct result of his approach while hitting. Harper swings at the first pitch in 42% of his plate appearances, well above the league average of 26%. Now, some great hitters like Josh Hamilton are notorious for 1st pitch swinging, but it’s usually more prudent to work the count to find a better pitch, especially once pitchers catch on to this tendency. Harper’s jumpiness at the plate has gotten him off-balance, as he is putting too much weight on his front foot, which causes him to swing over the top of too many pitches, resulting in swinging strikes and ground outs.
The root of his strikeout issues has come from the fact that Harper has seen a steady diet of breaking pitches over the past month, and they have become his kryptonite. Nat’s manager Davey Johnson has taken notice as well saying to the Washington Post “They’ve really given him a steady diet of off-speed pitches, not really attacking going after him. He gets impatient and then he’s his own worst enemy. Early on, they’re going to make adjustments to somebody that’s hitting it and they’ve made adjustments by not challenging him and going with more off-speed stuff and his impatience is to chase stuff outside of the zone.”
Pitchers have been able to get the youngster to swing at a lot of pitches low in the zone and in the dirt. In the video above you’ll notice how Andy Pettitte goes to work against Harper by keeping his pitches well off the plate and outside. Pettitte offers up a steady diet of curveballs low and away and Harper can’t stop himself from flailing away.
Harper also needs to work on his temper, which has been absolutely out of control at times this year. He memorably took the field on May 11th while bleeding from a gash on his forehead and his outburst in yesterday’s 4-1 loss to Philadelphia was nearly as bad. Davey Johnson correctly opted to double switch Harper out of the game in order to avoid the pitcher’s spot in the lineup in the 7th inning. Harper then proceeded to trash multiple batting helmets in just inside the clubhouse. Outbursts like this aren’t exactly a positive thing for a team with a 4.5 game lead in their division. Harper needs to learn to keep his cool and support his teammates even if he’s unhappy with a manager’s decision.
But the important thing to note here is that Washington understands Harper’s issue at the plate, and they appear to be working with him on being more patient and waiting for his pitch. Johnson’s confidence in the youngster doesn’t appear to be wavering much, and Washington’s brass (rightly) feels that Harper is just going through some rookie growing pains. When the Nats called the rookie outfielder up, opposing pitchers didn’t quite know how to properly pitch to Harper. Now that Bryce has over 450 big league plate appearances, opponents have been able to scout him and figure out the best plan of attack. All of this is normal for a 19-year-old player.