Harper making opposing pitchers pay

Harper making opposing pitchers pay

With Bryce Harper back in MVP form, opposing pitchers have been in a simple but unenviable position: command your stuff or get hurt. Through the first five weeks of the 2017 season, Harper has been hurting them, badly.

After returning to the Nationals' lineup and crushing his 10th home run in the Battle of the Beltways opener Monday, Harper is hitting .385/.511/.750 with 10 homers, 29 RBIs and a 1.261 OPS. His .524 Weighted On-Base Average ranks second in baseball, behind teammate Ryan Zimmerman. As dangerous as Harper's swing is right now, it's paramount to pitch him sharply. But pitchers haven't been getting the ball to the spots that give them the best chance to get him out. That's playing with fire.

In April, 211 Major League hitters saw 250 or more total pitches. Harper ranked dead last in the percentage of those pitches that had hit the edges of the strike zone: 31.5 percent, according to Statcast™. That's an indicator that pitchers, facing a superstar hitter, are missing the zone or giving Harper hittable strikes far too often.

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Harper said he doesn't want to focus too much on the details of whether pitchers are attacking him effectively. He's found himself at the plate, so he wants to avoid complicating things.

"I'm seriously not even trying to think about it, man," Harper told MLB.com. "Simplify and don't think about it too much -- that's when it's going good. When you start thinking about it, that's when it starts going haywire."

But the fact is, Harper has punished pitchers when they haven't painted. He was one of 44 hitters to put at least 40 balls in play on pitches inside the edges of the strike zone in April -- and he hit them hard. Among those 44 players, Harper ranked second in average exit velocity on those pitches, at 95.1 mph, just behind Corey Seager's 95.9 mph. Harper's combinations of exit velocity and launch angle on those batted balls produced a Statcast-expected batting average of .438, again ranking second to Seager, who was at .492.

Furthermore, on pitches within the interior of the zone, Harper hit 14 balls that Statcast™ classifies as barrels or solid contact -- the types of contact most likely to both go for hits and do damage -- tied for third most in the Majors.

"I'm just trying to see a pitch over the plate that I can hit, trying to make it simple," Harper said.

Harper has been successful so far, limiting himself to the pitches he can drive and laying off the ones that have given him more trouble. He leads the Majors in both walks and on-base percentage, and he has more walks (27) than strikeouts (23).

Last year, the book on Harper became to pound him away. His average exit velocity on pitches to the outer edge of the strike zone was only 86 mph. But while Harper's 2017 pitch heatmap shows pitchers are still trying to go after him there, he's now being more selective.

Harper has cut his swing rate on those outer-edge pitches significantly, from 51.5 percent in 2016 to 41.9 percent this season. (And when he has taken his cuts, his average exit velocity is up to 90.1 mph).

"They're throwing him a bunch of bait," manager Dusty Baker said in April. "They're throwing him some bait, hoping that he'll go for the bait. And he ain't going for the bait.

"If you want to catch the big bass, you got to have proper bait presentation, proper color, proper movement. And right now, he's a big bass."

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.