The Numbers Behind Bryce Harper's Hot Start
In 1929 Mel Ott of the New York Giants hit .328/.449/.635 with 42 homers, 113 walks, and a measly 38 strikeouts. Ott's 1.084 OPS is the best for a 20 year old. With April numbers of .364/.443/.740 with 8 homers, 11 walks, and 13 strikeouts Harper could best those numbers. Now I highlighted the strikeouts for two reasons. There is zero chance Harper strikes out less than 38 times this season. At his current pace he will get there sometime around June, but Harper had a 14.8% K rate. If he were to get the same 675 plate appearances that Ott got in 1929 Harper would strikeout exactly 100 times.
A K rate that low puts Bryce Harper in a special class. That is around the K rate of hitters like Robinson Cano and Paul Konerko. It is rare that a power hitter has that low of a K rate. Joey Votto, who may be the best left handed hitter over the past several seasons, has a career K rate of 18.5%. The low K rate for Harper is approaching Pujols level, who has a career K rate of 9.6%, which is absolutely amazing for a player with that type of power. Harper is still young and developing. His ceiling has yet to be reached, but what he is doing now is special.
Harper is so hard to strikeout not just because of his batting eye; Harper is also drawing walks in 12.5% of his plate appearances, which would give him around 84 walks in 675 plate appearances. That is good but not great and with pitchers starting to pitch around Harper could get better, but the reason Harper is hard to strikeout is because he has such quick hands. He can get the barrel of the bat to the ball quickly. It is hard to throw anything buy him. A lot of his strikeouts this season have come for the same reason as last season. Harper at times still hits like a young player and can get a little impatient.
The other advantage that Harper's plus hands give him is bat speed. Harper has the bat speed to spoil good pitches, but when he does put the ball in play it will be done so with authority. The average speed off the bat of a Bryce Harper homer in 2013 is 106 MPH with the hardest hit being 117 MPH. The display of power Harper has put on this season has been amazing and so far he has a HR/FB rate of 32%. The more amazing thing is that his overall line drive rate is down from 22.5% in 2012 to 14.1% in 2013. His HR/FB rate could decrease, but with it his line drive rate should increase. At this point, while it makes sense that Harper cannot keep up this pace, it is all unknown. Harper is a second year player and there isn't enough information to establish a true talent level for him or a career average for him to regress to.
However it should be noted that the overall best HR/FB rate in 2012 was Adam Dunn's 29.3%. Harper's 32% HR/FB rate would be the best since Ryan Howard's 31.8% in 2008. While it doesn't look to be sustainable, expectations should not be put on Harper. Doubt him and all he will do is prove you wrong, and even if the HR/FB rate drops then the line drive rate should improve meaning Harper may be hitting fewer homers as the season goes along, but will be hitting more doubles.
The scariest part of all this is that when you put this all together into the total package you have a hitter who could strikeout under 100 times, walk close to 100 times, hit 40+ homers, with a .300 batting average and .400 OBP. Those are MVP level numbers. While Harper was not expected to have the traditional sophomore slump he was thought to be more of a dark horse for MVP and at least in April so far he is making it look like the debate will come down to him and Justin Upton. MVP awards are not decided in April and it is way too early to talk about it, but what is known is that eventually Upton will drop back to his career average numbers of .279/.358/.485. Harper has no career averages. What is being witnessed may not just be a special season for a young player, but the birth of the next great superstar.
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