David Huzzard: Advanced metrics place Harper in select company

As a disappointing 13-14 April comes to an end for the Nationals, the only thing that went right was Bryce Harper. An April OPS of 1.150 is only so impressive on its own, but consider that the tops in all of baseball last season was Miguel Cabrera with .999 and the only regulars with better than that in April 2012 were Matt Kemp, Bryan LaHair, Josh Hamilton and David Ortiz. Harper is off to a hot start, but there are signs that it won’t be ending anytime soon.

Watch Harper at the plate. Don’t watch the pitches that he takes deep out of the park or the rocket line drives he hits deep into the corners. Watch the pitches he fouls off. Pitchers throw inside, and his quick hands get the bat to the ball and keep him alive at the plate. It is the same thing with pitches away. Harper has the bat speed, plate discipline and plate coverage to extend his at-bats. The most impressive thing about Harper’s season thus far is his approach at the plate.

Harper has struck out in 14.6 percent of his plate appearance. That is around the same rate as noted contact hitters Torii Hunter and Gerardo Parra, and would be less than 100 strikeouts in 600 plate appearances. Harper is also walking 12.6 percent of the time. This is around the same percent as notably patient hitters Buster Posey and Albert Pujols. Harper has the plate discipline to wait for his pitch and the plate coverage to foul off the pitches he doesn’t want. His quick hands make him even more dangerous as he can reach pitches that other batters cannot.

There exists in all great hitters the ability to hit the baseball where it is pitched. If pitched away, Harper will take the ball to the opposite field, where for his career he has an OPS of 1.045. A pitch down the middle goes back up the middle for an OPS of .923. Dare to pitch him inside and he will crush the ball for an OPS of 1.239. All of these numbers are impressive and tell the story of a complete hitter with power to all fields, but what exactly is Harper’s ceiling?

The first thing to do is to look at see who was the best 20-year-old. That was Mel Ott in 1929, who hit 42 homers and finished the season with an OPS of 1.084. That sounds quite impressive. But 1929 was an offensive era, and Rogers Hornsby won the MVP that season with a 1.139 OPS. In 1929, the average National League team scored 5.36 runs a game compared to 4.08 so far into 2013. It was a different era, but they make an advanced stat that helps us compare just these sorts of things. In 1929, Ott finished the season with an OPS+ of 165 (100 is an average player); Harper so far in 2013, is at 223.

That 223 OPS+ is impressive enough on its own, but then we look at the all-time best seasons by OPS+. Over a full season, 223 would rank Harper just below Babe Ruth’s 225 in 1926 and 1927 and above Hornsby’s 222 in 1924. Of players who played after 1900, there are three men in the top 10 for seasons by OPS plus: Barry Bonds, Ruth and Ted Williams. That is the top 10, and those three men are the best hitters to have ever played the game. These aren’t the only connections Harper has to these hitters, particularly Bonds.

Harper’s 31 percent HR/FB rate is the best in the majors since Bonds’ 29 percent in 2004. For at least the month of April, Harper has played like one of the best in the game. He strikes out at the rate of a contact hitter, walks at the rate of a patient slugger, hits the baseball with power to all fields and has all the natural talent to continue to do it this season and for many seasons to come.

What is so intriguing about Harper is that there is no mean for him to regress to. He is building his career averages as we speak, and before his career is over, there may be a fourth name added to the list of once-in-a-lifetime players. It is too early to tell, but for now Harper is off to a start that puts him in a class of very elite talent, and at least for April 2013, he played like he was Ruth or Bonds.

David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals for Citizens of Natstown, and offers his viewpoints as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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