Harper boosting Nationals, resuming assault on record book
Bryce Harper is back. The 19-year-old Nationals phenom has emerged from a second-half slide in recent weeks, bopping seven homers and collecting eight multi-hit games in his last 16 starts. Two of those homers came on Wednesday night, as Harper went deep — both shots traveled over 420 feet — against the Cubs’ Chris Volstad and Michael Bowden. He had plenty of company in teeing off on the downtrodden Cubs, as the Nationals combined for six homers for the second game in a row.
Thanks in part to Harper’s recovery, the Nats have backed a five-game losing streak with a 7-1 tear, reclaiming the league’s best record from the Reds in the process. As it stands, they’re 84-52 compared to Cincinnati’s 83-55, and they now own a 7 1/2 game lead in the NL East, and a major league best +128 run differential. Across that eight-game stretch, Harper has hit .400/.471/.976 with five homers in 34 plate appearances.
As one might expect from the league’s youngest player, Harper has had a rollercoaster season. His monthly splits tell part of the story (I’ve lumped his two April games in with May’s stats):
As the season has worn on, Harper’s on-base percentage has declined in every month, in part due to eroding plate discipline, and in part due to drops in his batting average on balls in play (by month: .303, .338, .276, .257, .333). What the monthly splits conceal is a dreadful stretch that ran from the All-Star break through August 15, before his fortunes turned: .171/.257/.244 with just two homers and four extra-base hits in 141 PA. Fatigue may have been a contributing factor; after all, Harper is in just his second season as a professional, having played 109 games last year with significantly less travel in terms of time zone changes.
Fatigue wasn’t the only factor, however. As ESPN’s Keith Law noted in late August, Harper has had longstanding problems against off-speed stuff on the outer half of the plate, and where he was able to adjust earlier in the year, his slide began when the Yankees used that approach in striking him out five times in seven plate appearances in a 14-inning game on June 16, providing a template for other teams. He has also proven vulnerable against lefties; dating back to that game (which was started by Andy Pettitte), he has hit .161/.228/.277 against southpaws, and his overall platoon split (.277/.351/.482 against righties, .226/.291/.390 against lefties) is sizable. His recent results do offer some hope in that department; since August 16, he’s 6-for-21 against southpaws, with a pair of homers.
Harper’s recent power surge has pushed him to 17 home runs, to go with a respectable but not exceptional .259/.330/.449 line. His slump may have cost him a shot at the NL Rookie of the Year award, as the Reds’ Todd Frazier has been superior in terms of basic statistics, hitting .289/.349/.531 with 18 homers while doing an exceptional job filling in for the injured Scott Rolen and Joey Votto. The Diamondbacks’ Wade Miley has gone 14-9 with a 2.90 ERA and a strong 3.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Both players are much older — Frazier is 26, Miley 25 — and while they lack Harper’s future potential, the award is based upon current performance, not projections of superstardom.
Even so, Harper still has an outside shot at eclipsing the single-season home run record for teenagers, held by Tony Conigliaro, who hit 24 for the Red Sox as a 19-year-old in 1964. Mel Ott is second on the list, with 18 for the Giants in 1928, so with one more, Harper can own a share of the NL record. More reachable is the teenage record for extra base hits, co-owned by Ott and the Cubs’ Phil Cavaretta (1935) with 48; Harper is at 43. Meanwhile, his 47 walks are just 12 off of the teenage record held by Rusty Staub for the Colt .45s in 1963; while less sexy from a statistical standpoint, the total does testify to the maturity of his approach even at his tender age.
Finally, with 3.5 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference’s version), Harper is just 0.2 wins off Ott’s mark for value among teenagers:
|4||Ken Griffey Jr.||2.9||1989||19||Mariners||506||16||.264||.329||.420|
|9||Tony Conigliaro||1.4||1964||19||Red Sox||444||24||.290||.354||.530|
That’s fine company. Of the other 10 players on the list, five — Ott, Cobb, Jackson, Yount and Mantle — are in the Hall of Fame, with Griffey likely to join them in 2016, his first year of eligibility. All of which should serve as a reminder of just how special Harper is; players able to succeed in the majors at such a young age tend to have great careers.
Combined with the returns from injury of Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond, Harper’s rise has helped turn the Nationals’ lineup into one of the deepest in the league, one where pitchers have few places to hide. Of the team’s current starters, only catcher Jesus Flores has an OPS below Danny Espinosa’s .746. That helps to explain why the Nats now rank fourth in the league in scoring at 4.50 runs per game. Both the league-leading Cardinals (4.80 runs per game) and the nearby Braves (4.48) — the only other contenders in the top five — have a couple of relatively easy outs in the lineup. All of which is one more reason why even with the impending shutdown of Stephen Strasburg, the Nats are a force to be reckoned with as October nears.