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Why Bryce Harper sacrificed home runs to save his season

Why Bryce Harper sacrificed home runs to save his season

Editor's note: This week across the NBC Sports Regional Networks, we'll be taking an in-depth look at some of the top free agents in baseball. Monday is dedicated to Nationals slugger Bryce Harper.

Ready now, guard down, the end coming near, Bryce Harper sat back at his locker and looked up. In his usual attire — sleeveless gray hoodie with “BH” across the front in red letters — Harper was in the midst of organizing loose items in a locker he had been taming for weeks. Just a few home games in the 2018 season remained. He, finally, was willing to talk about a variety of topics, emotional, personal or otherwise. Except one.

"Did you move your hands away from your face when settling into your stance after the All-Star break?”

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

A common interview tactic is to start with something benign. Work into the tougher stuff. Don’t ask off the top about distinct failure or that thing someone previously announced they didn’t want to talk about or they would leave the room. Which meant in this case, trying to enter a quick chat about hitting before the $400 million future comes up.

But Harper didn't want to answer those questions either. He worried he would start thinking about his swing. The concern was fair since the changes he made in both swing and approach following the All-Star break resurrected his season before the offseason mania began. Almost everything positive went up. Only homers went down. The alterations were notable in the midst of the launch angle era, something pioneered by Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long. Harper's shift may signify a broader change for the Nationals, and the league, going forward. Everyone had become too much Dave Kingman and not enough Tony Gwynn. 

The first half of the season tormented Harper in two simplistic ways: Other teams rarely pitched to him, and when they did, he often missed his chance. His contact percentage on balls within the strike zone finished five percent lower than his career average. He was 10 percent below that number for much of the season. 

On May 1, he explained his anguish at the plate following a 37-walk April. 

”At 25 years old, you want to hit the baseball,” Harper said at the time.

Harper contended he never was frustrated. He said it then, and again at the close of the season when things were better, leaving some gray area about the truth. He simultaneously said he wasn’t irritated while also saying he was desperate to hit.

What is clear is the shift in his hands once he came to rest before a pitch was delivered. They moved away from his face, all but eliminating a load-up loop in his hand action. The result was a more direct path to the baseball via a shorter swing. An extra split-second. Melding that with an acceptance of what Nationals manager Davey Martinez preached throughout the season -- “Hit through the middle” -- enabled Harper to produce a season-saving post-All-Star break run. He’s also pretty good at his baseline. That helps, too.

“Just being that player,” Harper told me about what was better in the second half. “I think for me, it’s just being consistent, go out there, get pitches to drive, take my walks, really not miss the pitches over the plate or anything like that. I think just staying the course and knowing I had about 82 games left, 81 games left. Really not worrying about what I did in the first half and trying to finish as strong as I could.”

Harper hit a clean .300 after the All-Star break. His home run total dropped from 23 to 11. Yet, he picked up just three fewer hits in 104 less at-bats following the festivities in Nationals Park. His walk and strikeout rates leveled, shaking loose from their post-April distortion. However, his final totals still showed the earlier ugliness. Harper struck out 169 times on the season, including 31 percent of his pre-break at-bats. That total surpasses any single-season mark for selectivity free Kingman.

Eighteen players struck out more than Kingman’s worst season, 1982 when he led the league with 156 whiffs, in 2018. Long a benchmark for the all-or-nothing player, Kingman, simply nicknamed “Kong”, hit 442 home runs and struck out 1,816 times. He did little else.

Kingman’s framework represents the state of today’s game. An all-or-nothing phase (the HRK Era, if you will) has taken hold. In 2015, just one team, the Chicago Cubs, struck out more than 1,500 times during the season. That rose to three last season when the Chicago White Sox were just six strikeouts shy of 1,600 for the year. The league-leading total of team strikeouts has risen each year since 2013. 

Home runs have come along, too. One team hit more than 200 homers in 2013. Seventeen teams passed the mark in 2017. Ten did so last season, an interesting decline that suggests, like Harper, the league may be pulling back, somewhat, to a more balanced plan at the plate.

A number that came up throughout the season when addressing Harper’s plate problems was 25, and it was always a caveat. Long included it when discussing the struggles. Max Scherzer pointed to it when asked about Harper. Harper, too, mentioned his age when outlining his angst. To release some of his pent-up swings, he once chose to take early batting practice on the field and hit as many home runs as possible, essentially dunking away the shackles on him at the plate when games began. He traditionally does drills in the batting cage beneath the stadium. Not that day. He wanted to be young again and just hack. Forget discipline for 15 minutes.

Scherzer, always deciphering, watched Harper the last four seasons. His first glimpse was the MVP year. Three lurching but successful years followed. Harper carries a .952 OPS since Scherzer became the highest-paid player in Nationals history, a distinction the pitcher would be pleased to relinquish this offseason.

“Like every player, we all have ups and downs,” Scherzer said. “Bryce is no different. I’m not different. We’re all human. But, watch how the league still fears him, and how he still has the patience — has an eye to be able to swing at strikes. That’s an unbelievable trait for somebody to have with six years in the league and be that young. Sometimes you have to step back and go, ‘When I was 25, 26, it was way different.’ I just know how much I continued to grow after the age of 25. That’s where, when you watch him play, you see how good he is already and what he can do at the plate really can change a ballgame in the swing of a bat.”

The intent and delivery of those swings changed after the All-Star break. Along with the revisions came a sacrifice of home run power but a rise in other categories, including average, on-base percentage and slugging. Is this the mold Harper will continue to follow? We’ll have to watch to find out, because he won’t be talking about it.


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What does Juan Soto's rookie season mean for the rest of his career?

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What does Juan Soto's rookie season mean for the rest of his career?

Juan Soto’s surprising debut season was one of the primary storylines, and few bright spots, for the Nationals in 2018. In fact, his historic rookie year was one of the biggest storylines in all of baseball.

We’ve addressed his incredible accomplishments before, but they're worth revisiting. As a reminder, Soto led Major League Baseball in opposite field home runs by a left-handed hitter this season, in addition to falling just two home runs shy of Tony Conigliaro’s teenage record of 24. He achieved both marks despite missing six weeks of the season while he was still in the minors.

Soto became the first teenage hitter to ever have an on-base percentage over .400, the only teenage hitter to ever walk 60 times in a season (he did so 79 times), and his wRC+ of 146 is the highest a teenager has ever had.

What’s even more impressive is that for many of the records Soto broke, the hitter he surpassed was Mel Ott, who had already played 117 games in the big leagues prior to his age-19 season. Soto barely played that many games as a professional, let alone at the highest level the game has to offer.

The question, then, is what does all this mean for the rest of his career? Is a historic rookie season a sign of certain future success? And what would be a reasonable expectation for the young slugger?

Frankly, it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty.

The most obvious first step in trying to project the rest of Soto’s career is to look at the other teenage hitters who broke out in a big way. Of course, most of the players listed played in entirely different eras, or were completely different types of hitters, or both. Still, the list of names is interesting.

wRC+ is a stat we’ve referenced before, but for those who don’t know, it’s an all-encompassing metric for a hitter’s value at the plate. A 100 is league average, and every number above 100 is a percentage better than average. So, Juan Soto’s 146 means he was 46% better than an average Major League hitter in 2018.

By wRC+, the best teenage hitters in baseball history before 2018 include Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Ty Cobb, Bryce Harper, Sherry Magee, Johnny Lush, Mickey Mantle, Cesar Cedeno, and Edgar Renteria.

That’s obviously an up-and-down group. Ott, Cobb and Mantle are inner-circle Hall of Famers. Harper is on their level from a talent perspective. Lush and Conigliaro had entirely forgettable careers.

Magee, Renteria, and Cedeno each had extremely valuable careers, providing 30-50 Wins Above Replacement each. That means that of the nine players behind Soto in teenage wRC+, one third were among the greatest players of all-time, one third were classic “Hall of Very Good” players, and one third were either disappointments or are still early in their careers.

Those numbers bode extremely well for Soto’s future. Obviously far less than 33% of baseball players make the Hall of Fame, so being in this elite class of young hitters is very exciting. By the time all is said and done, it seems likely that 7 of the 9 will have accumulated at least 30 WAR, and 6 of the 9 will be above 50. That’s insanely good. 

Another interesting note is that simply by playing as a teenager, Soto’s odds of a historic career are pretty high. In the entire history of baseball, among all players who had 100 plate appearances before turning 20 years old, a whopping 24% of them ended up in the Hall of Fame. That’s completely ignoring how successful or not they were with those plate appearances. Soto had 494 plate appearances in 2018, well over the threshold of 100.

Looking at it historically, and comparing Soto to other players, the odds appear pretty good that Soto will be a high-impact player for more than a decade.

With many of those guys, the tools and talent meant that improvement could be expected. With Soto, what makes him so impressive, is that he already looks close to a finished product. He’ll probably end up accumulating some ridiculous counting stats, thanks to his early start, but expecting a leap in production as he enters his twenties would probably be foolhardy. He’ll improve as he gains experience, sure, but not by leaps and bounds. 

I know it seems crazy on the surface to say “this teenage prodigy won’t get that much better,” but odds are his peak seasons won’t look too different from his 2018.

Soto will eventually have to deal with sophomore slumps, pitchers adjusting to his tendencies, the burden of expectations, and the obstacle of staying consistent 600 times a year at the most difficult skills in sports. Ultimately, though, given the history of prodigious young talents at the plate, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he isn’t a major contributor in the lineup. 

He’s now set a baseline of something in the neighborhood of a .300/.400/.500 slash line, to go along with a 25 homer pace. The keen batting eye isn’t going away anytime soon, and based on his scouting profile and body type the power likely won’t fluctuate too much. His specific skill set will always provide a high floor and consistency. He may never win an MVP, but he could easily end up playing in a dozen All-Star Games.

This is who he is, and he’s (probably) here to stay. If it plays out like the numbers say it will, which would jive with what talent evaluators have long projected and what fans experienced all summer long, then by the time his career is over, he may be the next D.C. baseball player to have a statue built of himself. You never want to project a young prospect to make the Hall of Fame one day, but right now, nothing seems impossible for Juan Soto.