Is Bryce Harper hurting his team?

It’s weird to think that a team on pace to win 93 games is underachieving, but the reality is the Nationals are in 3rd place in a 5 team division – technically they’re tied with the 4th place team in the loss column.  Underachieving may be too strong a word, but they definitely aren’t where they’d like to be.

With the elephantine caveat that on May 15th a team that’s on pace to win 93 games is doing just fine, let’s take a look at what could be holding them back.

Let’s start with the obvious:  Health, or lack thereof.

Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmermann are all out of action and Anthony Rendon just recently returned from missing time.  After typing that sentence I’m surprised they’re doing as well as they are with absences of that magnitude.

That being said, it always helps to look at the numbers to see if something else sticks out.

As you would expect, the Nationals are performing well, but unspectacularly in most areas.  They’re 7th in MLB in run prevention, 10th in runs scored, 6th in team defense.

The Nationals are 2nd best in MLB in K%-BB%, which of course is heavily swayed by Max Scherzer’s dominance in that area, and they’re 3rd in MLB in runs above average against curve balls.  (Are you listening Yankee pitchers?)

What jumps out are the batting averages on balls in play (BABIP).  As a team, Washington is 28th in MLB in BABIP and far more alarmingly, Bryce Harper individually is sporting a .196 BABIP – .121 lower than his career average.

I had to check that last number multiple times to verify it.  The National League home run leader is either a) hitting into a lot of bad luck, or b) getting beat by defensive shifts often.

A closer look into the numbers tells us that so far in ’18, Harper is a) hitting a higher percentage of balls hard than he has before, and b) he has a higher pull rate than ever before.

Hmmm…hitting the ball hard often, hitting it in the same direction often, with a BABIP over 100 points lower than the career norm…

That my friends, is the sound of someone in a free agent year who is selling out to hit home runs, and as a result is usually hitting into a shift with the occasional blast over it.

Does that hurt his team?

Yes.

This is how:  Harper’s OBP and SLG this season are both lower than they were in ’15 and ’17 (I’m discounting ’16 when he clearly played with less than 100% health).  What’s happening is Harper’s increase in pull rate is costing him singles, doubles and triples to the opposite field, resulting in the lower OBP and SLG percentages (He only has 4 doubles this season – he had 27 in ’17 and 38 in ’15).

Ever wonder how someone with a higher home run rate than his career norm can also have a lower slugging than his career norm?  That’s how – a big reduction in doubles and triples.

Ever wonder how someone’s walk rate can go up, but his OBP can go down?  That’s how – a lot fewer singles.

And yes, my friends, the resultant lowered OBP and SLG are hurting the team.

It may work in the sense of getting a huge contract this offseason, but there’s a reason that Trea Turner’s WAR is 1.6 and Harper’s is 0.8. Turner isn’t going to win a HR title or get a $40 million annual salary, but he is helping Washington win more games than Harper.

Speaking of which…

Reality update #68 – 2018 War leaders, shortstops:

  1. Lindor 2.9
  2. Simmons 2.2
  3. Machado 2.1
  4. Correa 1.9
  5. DeJong 1.7
  6. Turner 1.6
  7. Swanson 1.3
  8. Gregorius 1.3

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