Tagged: Bryce Harper

Happy Feet – A Look at Bryce Harper’s Last Second Adjustment

While last night’s Washington Nationals game against the St. Louis Cardinals will be remembered for the almost no-hitter for rookie starter Michael Wacha (and rightfully so), there was an interesting side story in the 7th inning, courtesy of Bryce Harper.
 
Jimmy, roll the tape:

 
(Click to unleash the gif)
harper_wacha
 
Did you see it? Did you notice the last second hop/skip/jump in the box towards Wacha before he swung at a 96 MPH fastball?
 
Here’s a different angle of the swing, which really gets the point across:
 
(Click to unleash the gif)
harper_wacha2
 
First of all — wow. In a game determined by milliseconds, Harper takes something already tough to do and laughs in the face of it, making an adjustment as Wacha is throwing a pitch. A 96 MPH FASTBALL.
 
Second — why? My thought is that Harper was guessing changeup — Wacha’s biggest secondary pitch, and one that was especially good last night in his 8.2 innings of one-hit ball. His 32 changeups last night came in at a 62.5% strike rate and a 15.6% whiff rate. When you also consider that Wacha threw just three curveballs and one cutter, you get a better appreciation of Harper’s mindset in this at bat. Already down in the count 1-2 and knowing he wasn’t going to get anything breaking, he assumed he wouldn’t get something hard, so he set up in his usual fashion in the batter’s box, then scooted up to get to that assumed changeup before it darted out of the zone.
 
Here’s a plot of the pitches he saw in the at-bat; as you can see, Harper was one step ahead of Wacha as far as getting that changeup, eventually striking out on the pitch:
 

 
Pretty darn impressive. To not only be able to move the feet, keep your swing mechanics intact while doing so, look for and react to a changeup, but then get a high-90’s fastball, and still be able to catch up to it enough to just foul it off is all sorts of amazing and impressive. But you know what? It’s been done before.
 
Remember Hal Morris?
 
halmorris
 
While his church league softball batting stance wasn’t as egregious as Harper’s, Morris also employed a foot shuffle before getting the bat through the zone. With a .304 batting average, relatively low 12.3% strikeout rate, and 14.6 fWAR over a 13 year career, Morris was surprisingly effective with the approach. Also to note is while Harper all but leaped towards Wacha with his swing, Morris’ was more of a shuffle up towards the plate, with a small step towards the pitcher; small difference, but an important one.
 
While the end result wasn’t terribly desired — Harper ended up striking out — it nonetheless was an interesting look at Harper’s approach and how he is able to not only make adjustments, but make them in real-time; a very rare feet feat.

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Bunting With the Devil

There has been much ado over Bryce Harper‘s bunt in last night’s game against the New York Mets — a bunt that came with runners on first and second with no outs, in the eighth inning, with the Washington Nationals down by two runs. Much ado over the notion that Harper would resort to a sacrifice bunt, despite the notion that the situation was in his favour to take a mighty hack or two, as he is wont to do. Also much ado over the underlying theme that Harper’s struggles against left-handed pitching has left him to a last resort to put together a good at-bat — to bunt.

To bunt against Scott Rice, a journeyman rookie who, while admittedly not a comfortable at-bat for a lefty due to his arm slot and quirky delivery, is still Scott Rice, journeyman rookie LOOGY.

While many have lauded the play as a smart move, and one that shows his fastidious and superior baseball IQ, many haven’t:

I will admit that I am in the always occasionally annoying and vocal crowd that doesn’t really like the bunt overall as a smart play, I do admit that there are occasions where a bunt is a good idea; however, I do feel that it is used way too often and those occasions where it is warranted are few and far between.

Is letting one of your most productive hitters — ranked first on the team in ISO, second in wOBA and wRC+ — bunt on his own in such a situation ever a good idea?

What would you say if it was Andrew McCutchen? Carlos Gonzalez? Jose Bautista? Would that change your mind? I bring these players up because of their comparable aforementioned stats to Harper — ISO, wOBA, wRC+ — what sort of environment would you see either of those players being in, where the best alternative for them to generate a scoring opportunity was to bunt with no outs?

Let’s talk about environment for a bit. Without a doubt, the game environment is a crucial piece to this puzzle and one that Adam Kilgore, the author of the link above, admits to.  With the help of Fangraphs, here’s a table that lays out the situations at hand for each of Harper’s bunts for 2013; LI is leverage index and is a measure of the importance of the situation and WPA is win probability added, a statistic that measures how much a particular play affects a team’s chances of winning. A play with a LI over one is considered a play with high importance, while a positive WPA is good and provides some sort of benefit to a team’s win. I have also included score, inning, out state as well as the pitcher’s handedness:

Date Score Inning Out Runners LI WPA Pitcher
05/21/13 0-0 T1 0 1– 1.57 -0.015 R
05/21/13 1-2 T8 0 -2- 1.05 -0.002 L
07/02/13 0-0 B6 0 0 1.31 -0.032 R
08/10/13 4-4 B7 1 1-3 4.25 0.046 L
09/01/13 3-5 B8 0 12- 4.38 -0.023 L

…and the same thing, this time for 2012:

Date Score Inning Out Runners LI WPA Pitcher
05/06/12 1-3 B6 0 0 1.35 -0.033 L
06/12/12 1-4 T8 0 0 0.52 0.019 L
07/03/12 2-0 B3 0 0 0.58 -0.014 R
08/14/12 1-0 T4 1 1– 2.09 0.080 L
08/20/12 4-4 B7 0 -2- 1.94 -0.005 L
09/12/12 0-1 T7 0 12- 1.76 0.004 R

…and two more tables the first being for 2013, the second for 2012, just averaging and summing things up for lefty versus righty pitchers.

2013:

Runners, Total LI, Avg WPA, Avg
All 6 2.51 -0.01
L 1 3.23 0.01
R 5 1.44 -0.02

2012:

Runners, Total LI, Avg WPA, Avg
All 4 1.37 0.01
L 2 1.48 0.02
R 2 1.17 -0.01

So what do these four tables tell us? Quite a lot, actually. Here are some quick hit bullet points:

  • Harper in 2013 is bunting with more runners on base, especially against lefties
  • Harper in 2013 is more likely to bunt in later innings as compared to 2012
  • The difference in leverage situation for lefties is HUGE and has grown in 2013
  • While it is a small difference, Harper *is* providing a positive WPA when bunting on lefties
  • In general, Harper’s bunts don’t bring much to the table (very low WPA) in high leverage situations

So we have a good idea of when Harper is likely to bunt — late in the game, either tied or losing, in a high leverage situation, normally with a lefty on the mound. Just to tie things together somewhat nicely, let’s describe Harper’s lack of success against lefties thus far in 2013:

Split PA H XBH R RBI BB% K% AVG
vs L 131 21 9 2 12 14.5% 23.7% 0.196
Home vs L 62 9 0 2 6 16.1% 25.8% 0.180
Away vs L 69 12 9 8 6 13.0% 21.7% 0.211
High Leverage 31 4 2 14 9 12.9% 32.3% 0.167

One note — High Leverage here is against both lefties and righties, but adds context to the LI numbers seen previously. In general, Harper hasn’t done much production-wise in high leverage situations in 2013, regardless of who is throwing.

So where does that leave us? Where does that leave Harper? It leaves him and the Nats in a tough situation; when environment is taken into consideration, one of the their top hitters (and one of the NL’s top hitters to be exact) feels that his only resort against lefties is to square around and take one for the team and let a teammate pick him up.

It also leads to this:

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 11.10.12 AM

The two highest leverage at bats for Harper in 2013 have come this past weekend, both against Scott Rice, both in the bottom of the eighth with runners on first and second, losing to the Mets. While both were ‘bad’ plays — both provided negative WPA — they had different results.

With one, Harper’s hustle was questioned in a loss, as he jogged to first after a weakly hit grounder. The other, a bunt in a situation that hardly ever calls for one, led to a runner scoring and eventually to a win.

While this isn’t the way most expected Harper to contribute to the offensive success of the team, right now, this is about as good as it gets for him against lefties in high leverage situations. In a September for a team fighting for a wild card spot, all of the remaining games become crucial, and the parade of lefties coming out of the bullpen to face Harper will only grow in size. Does Harper keep bunting, dancing with the alluring devil that has ever so briefly shown the bunt to be a good idea?

When you dance with the devil, you have to expect to get burnt; do the flames engulf the Nats chances of a playoff berth in the process?

***

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs

The Warning Track’s Power: An Exposition

By now we have all seen the valiant attempt at snagging Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley‘s home run in last night’s game made by Los Angeles Dodgers curer of cancer messiah outfielder Yasiel Puig. If not, here it is again:

Courtesy of SB Nation

Ouch.

This looks all too familiar to Washington Nationals fans, who are just now winding down therapy sessions in response to the eerily similar play made by Bryce Harper back on May 13, again at Dodgers Stadium:

Courtesy of SB Nation and SI.com

While Puig thus far has been fortunate to suffer less painful repercussions post-wall collision than Harper, there are a number of parallels to both collisions that make you scratch your head at the possibility that there might be something amiss out in right field.

First, let’s pan out, and take a look at where Puig and Harper had their incidents – Puig’s collision is the blue circle, Harper’s the red:

Courtesy of wikipedia.org

Courtesy of wikipedia.org

Between the .gifs and this panoramic view of the location of the injuries, we can see that both occurred in roughly the same area – where the wall isn’t so much wall, but video scoreboard/billboard. While the panoramic pic I have used was taken from 2007 and doesn’t reflect some of the new changes that were undertaken prior to the 2013 season, it allows us to confirm that the crime scenes are close to one another and share the same background – the video boards. For those so inclined, check out this post by SB Nation’s True Blue LA for more details and a CGI-style rendering of the outfield wall to get more detail.

Another quirk particular to Dodger Stadium that raises questions about the particulars of the collisions at the warning track; for each .gif, we see that both players – both 6’3″ in height – had roughly three steps worth of warning track before they met the wall, which seems a bit stingy, especially in this day and age and the sheer size and mass of the players of today’s game.

With the help of my crack staff of interns and fact checkers here at HDIB?, I found some interesting facts revolving around the various warning tracks around MLB stadiums and what outfielders have to say about them.

First – there is no real regulation as to how wide the warning track needs to be, or what material it should be composed of, only some very loose suggestions. To quote the Baseball Tomorrow Fund Baseball Maintenance Guide:

The warning track is normally 15 feet deep in front of all obstructions; however, consult the leagues and associations that will utilize the field regarding rules and regulations.

…and with respect to what materials it is made of:

The warning track can be made from a variety of materials. It can be made of a rubberised material and poured onto asphalt or constructed using red crushed brick material and or shell rock. The goal is to ensure the warning track material is different in color and texture than the playing field surface.
So what we have here is one of the more crucial safety measures on a baseball field being left open to interpretation – let’s look more at those suggestions and interpretations and their effects on the outfield and the outfielders.

For further discussion of the notion that there is no set standard for warning track material and width, we have this article, which references the book Sports Fields: A Manual for Design, Construction and Maintenance and confirms that MLB warning tracks are in the 10-15 foot width range. This harkens back to the days of the first warning track, seen at Yankee Stadium in 1949 and had a width of 10 feet. It also briefly mentions that not all warning tracks are made of the same material, which adds additional layers of confounding for an outfielder – different materials will have differing tactile and audio cues, if they have any at all.

So we have a safety measure of different widths – outfielders will get no less than 10 feet, but sometimes can get 12, maybe even 15, which equates to three to five steps before hitting the outfield wall – and now different types of materials that may crunch when they step on it, or may not, and may or may not give them a different ‘feel’ as they transfer from grass/turf to the warning track. Essentially, all three of the senses available for the outfielder to discern where they are (taste and smell don’t play a role here, or at least I would hope not) are affected with these loose applications of the rules.

How do outfielders feel about that?

Thanks to this article over at ESPN, we have a nice sampling of what’s being said by those affected by the ever shifting warning track. For those link click averse, to paraphrase the outfielders, it’s a scary proposition and in many ways, they are running blind. With no standardization of warning track dimensions and materials, the situation changes with every series, with new or different obstacles to overcome every three to five games.

With this basic premise in mind, let’s go back to our Dodger Stadium collisions. Not only do Puig and Harper have to counter these aforementioned variables, but they also have another aspect to deal with – the effects of the video board on how their brains process the information and how their bodies function as a result of this information processed in a correct and timely manner. While this is simply conjecture on my part, I do wonder if the lights of the board out in right-center might have played games on the vision and depth perception of Puig and Harper, causing their brains to not be able to process the proprioceptive  and exteroceptive cues that would have allowed them to make the proper adjustments in order to not run into the wall, full speed. Along with the lights, I wonder if the chain link fencing protecting the board might have played a small role in distorting the visual and audio cues that go into determining how close the wall was to the players.

Overall, we have a dicey situation. Poorly defined criteria, a multitude of materials that add oodles of variables into how well and how quickly a player can determine where he is on the field as he is tracking a flyball, and antiquated warning track dimensions that are probably in need of re-evaluation to keep up with the pace of the game and the size of the players, are all at play here.

While we always want to see our favourite players give 100% effort and ‘leave it all on the field’, the inconsistencies of warning tracks around MLB makes me wonder – how much of leaving it all on the field is illusion and how much of it could be prevented, for the better?

Courtesy of sports.yahoo.com

‘That’s Not A Strike’: A Lesson in Contrasts

2 different games, 2 different players and umpires, 2 different reactions to a called strike, 2 different results to said responses from said umpires.

So says me.

OK, enough alliterative foreshadowing and frolicking.

Yesterday, Bryce Harper was ejected on an appeal to third base umpire John Hirschbeck. The offending infraction that got Harper tossed nanoseconds after the called third strike, ending the inning? The shrugging of shoulders, with a corresponding raising of the arms, bat it tow, and a mildly passive-aggressive toss of his helmet towards the dugout.

Here, have a look for yourself, courtesy of mlb.com by way of the excellent Washington Nationals blog, Nats Enquirer:


By the looks of the pitch tracker in the video, it was the right call, as the incriminating pitch *just* grazed the bottom of the strike zone. Let’s have a look at the PITCHf/x for the at-bat, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

It was a strike

It was a strike

As we can see, the pitch in question (#5), was a strike; a low, borderline strike, but nonetheless one that Harper should have been swinging at. Whether Harper held up his swing in time is something that can’t been seen in the video, but apparently, he didn’t.

Also seen in the clip was Harper uttering, post-ejection, either ‘that ball was away’ or ‘no fucking way’. My lip-reading skills are suspect at best, so I leave it to the reader to investigate further.

It was a close pitch and Harper had some right to interject with his own interpretation of the strike zone and the pitch; whether his body language merited immediate ejection in the first inning of the game, again, I leave to reader scrutiny.

A day before in Houston, we had the following at bat, the Astros’ Lucas Harrell versus the Tigers’ Prince Fielder:

Screen shot 2013-05-06 at 12.43.01 PM

Screen shot taken from baseball-reference.com

Nothing real shocking here – Fielder is no stranger to the strikeout, whiffing at a 19% rate thus far in 2013; heck, he even had a strikeout earlier in the game in question, caught looking in the first inning, also at the hands of Harrell.

Let’s have a look at the last pitch of the at bat:

1dugj

Another low ball, another strikeout, another hitter not too happy with the call. As we can see, Fielder repeated, over and over, to home plate umpire Scott Barry, ‘that ball is down’.

In the waning seconds, we can also see Fielder, body turned directly at Barry, vehemently state, ‘that’s not a fucking strike’, as he plods back to the Tigers dugout. He continues his tirade on the way back to the dugout, the entire time eyes locked with Barry’s, pleading his case in a not so professional manner.

The PITCHf/x plot for the at bat:

fieldervharrell

As the red dot, #6, shows us Fielder had a point; that ball *was* down.

However, what interests me in this tale of two K’s is the interface between the player and the umpire and their individual interpretations of the strike zone and how much rope a given player has to argue balls and strikes. Fielder stopped short of telling Barry he would take his mother out for a seafood dinner and never call her back, while Harper gets the heave-ho without so much as a whimper. While both Fielder and Harper gave the umpires body language that expressed their disdain for the calls, Harper’s was done so far away, it’s borderline ridiculous to believe that Hirschbeck felt ‘threatened’ by the gesturing. Barry, on the other hand, kept his composure and gave Fielder more than his time to plead his case; even more interesting is the fact that Barry let Fielder break two unwritten rules of interacting with an umpire.

First, you don’t turn around to engage them in argument (though I readily admit this might be more of a rule for catchers to not turn around or get out of the crouch to argue).

Second, no cursing. Again, this rule is loosely upheld, and is probably more egregious when used to directly address the umpire or his skills – ‘you fucking suck’ will be less tolerated than ‘that’s not a fucking strike’. Perhaps. Like many other things related to the rules of baseball, written or otherwise, it’s up for individual interpretation.

In a fortuitous twist, Harper’s and Fielder’s teams set off against one another this coming Tuesday, in interleague play. While the results of the match remain to be seen, we can be guaranteed one thing: the strike zone will remain in question – no clowning.

Cracking the Morse Code – Mike Morse’s Key to Hitting Success

Every hitter has a pattern of some sort, that can be used as an indication that he’s locked in, seeing the ball well, and is at the apex of confidence in his hitting mechanics. Whether it’s a visual aspect of his swing, where he hits the ball, or how hard he hits it, every hitter has that tangible cue that makes it known that his swing is optimal and clicking on all cylinders.

For Seattle Mariner Mike Morse, his ‘locked in’ cue was on impressive display last night against the Oakland Athletics:

morse_apr2_spray-chart

Those 2 green dots up in the stands are his two home runs against the A’s in a 7-1 victory for the Mariners. Overall, Morse had himself quite a day – 2 for 4 with 4 RBI – and those green dots out in right-right center field should be encouraging signs for M’s fans, and discouraging ones for AL pitchers.

Why is that?

Similar to his former teammate Bryce Harper, Morse displays an unorthodox batting profile; as a right-handed power hitter, Morse does his best work going to the opposite field. When Morse is locked in and his swing mechanics are in total harmony, Morse kills pitching to the opposite field, something not often seen with big boppers. The always fantastic Jeff Sullivan of SB Nation’s Lookout Landing made his own references and inferences to this notion just after Morse was traded to Seattle, but let’s take a closer look at Morse’s career homerun and 2013 spring training stats and see if there was something that could have possibly predicted Morse being locked in so early in 2013.

With the help of Baseball Reference, we have the breakdown of Morse’s 70 career home runs prior to last night, in terms of which field they were hit:

Screen shot 2013-04-03 at 12.43.35 PM

The highlighted boxes are the homeruns Morse have hit to either right (9) or right-center (89) field in his career  – it ends up being 41 percent of his career total, which is an absurdly high percentage of opposite field homers. In comparison, only 70 of Albert Pujols475 career homeruns were hit to the opposite field – about 15 percent.

So now we can see that not only is Morse a great opposite field hitter, his best work is done going that way, which makes his 2 homer day so early in the season a good omen for the Mariners, who have been sorely lacking a middle of the order presence for a number of years. Now, let’s back it up a tad, and have a look at Morse’s 2013 spring training stats, again, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

Year Tm PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB OppQual
2013 SEA 66 56 14 20 3 0 9 15 7 18 0.357 0.439 0.893 1.332 50 2 2 0 1 0 9.0

The bolded emphasis on Morse’s spring training slugging percentage is mine, as it brings up a curious, but not terribly reliable (more on this in a bit) assessment of spring training production – the Dewan Rule. This rule posits that a player can be projected to have a breakout season if the following criteria are satisfied:

– 200 or more career MLB at-bats

– 40 or more ABs in that year’s spring training

– spring training SLG > career SLG by 200 points or more

…and with Morse’s career SLG at a robust 0.495, his spring training SLG exceeds his career SLG by 398 points, thereby satisfying all points of the Dewan Rule.

You can read more about the Dewan Rule and some very thorough research and debunking of its utility and reliability in predicting breakout seasons via spring training stats over at Baseball Prospectus. Briefly, the brilliant folks at BP didn’t find the Rule a robust or reliable predictor of future performance, mentioning it is at best a jumping off point to encourage discourse, and not a debate ending metric. However, when paired with our visual cues of Morse’s swing being in midseason form already, it would be no surprise if Morse’s 2013 goes against what Baseball Prospectus results would indicate, and that the Dewan Rule, paired with our data, confirm a breakout season with his return to the American League.

With Morse’s propensity to go about things the opposite way, should we really be surprised?

-… . .- … – / — — -.. .

A Leg Up

By now, we’ve all heard about what Washington Nationals leftfielder Bryce Harper did with the stick in the Nats’ Opening Day win over the Miami Marlins. In his age 20 season, Harper is looking to embark on a journey that has many prognosticating him doing things not seen frequently in the game.

A tweet from District Sports Page provided some additional insight on Harper’s swing, and got me thinking about Harper’s hitting approach:

Here’s a picture of what Dave Nichols and the rest of the DSP gang were talking about (courtesy of Google Images):

Bryce  Harper_leg up

Harper has a very pronounced weight shift from his back leg to his front leg as he proceeds through his swing to contact; his swing has such a violent translation of torque and power through the hitting zone, it results in this exaggerated back leg lift, making for a one of a kind hitter.

Or does it?

While we have many more years to enjoy and argue over the career merits of Harper as possibly one of the best power hitters of the game, his swing mechanics have been seen before; however, much like his age 19 season, it hasn’t been seen too often, which makes it all the more special and interesting to watch unfold.

My immediate thought?

The Big Hurt. Here’s a pic to confirm- the angle is a bit different compared to the Harper photo, but it does the trick:

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners

Thomas, a 2 time AL MVP, and career long menace to opponent pitching, also had a very pronounced weight transfer to his front leg, resulting in a jaw dropping amount of power, as his career 521 home runs and .974 OPS can attest. A disciple of former hitting coach Walt Hriniak‘s approach to hitting, much was made of the ‘front foot’, Hrinak inspired mechanics that Thomas made his own, but few others could replicate.

It will be interesting to see how far Harper can take his unorthodox hitting mechanics, and how much success can be obtained with them. While many would believe that this front foot approach would make a hitter susceptible to offspeed pitches, if Harper’s two HR’s off of Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco are any indication- both were hit off of offspeed offerings – he has made the proper adjustments to make him fall victim to offspeed and breaking pitches less frequently in 2013 than he did in 2012, using these hitting mechanics.

However you care to look at his start to 2013, be it the hitting fireworks or approach, Bryce Harper has a leg up on the competition, both figuratively and literally.

Expectations, Great or Otherwise: Bryce Harper’s 2013

Coming into spring training, the expectations for the 2013 Washington Nationals, needless to say, are much different from those placed in front of them in 2012. A NL East championship, an unfettered Stephen Strasburg (at least innings-wise), and a couple of fresh faces in the form of Denard Span and Dan Haren all add weight to the already heady prognostications set forth by those who…uh…prognosticate.

These are but a small sampling of what’s shaping DC expectations; beyond them is what is being impatiently expected out of the age 20 season of NL Rookie of the Year and future curer of cancer Bryce Harper. Thus far in his 33 spring training plate appearances, Harper is doing everything he can to silence critics that forecast a sophomore slump, hitting at a .438/.455/.750 slash line in his Florida environs. This of course, has Nationals fans’ hearts aflutter, thinking of what his 1.205 spring training OPS will translate to, once the regular season begins and teams start playing for keeps – All Star appearances, MVP’s… championships?

Or nothing at all?

The chronicles of baseball lore are strewn with the names of rookies who sparkled, only to immediately fade once season two came upon them; who can really say for any certainty that this won’t happen to Harper? Who can say that spring training stats *are* useful, and possibly prognosticators of a fabulous follow-up season?

Well, for this post, we can. Let’s get to it.

To preface our little exercise, let’s have a look at what Matthew Kory recently wrote about Harper and the expectations surrounding him and his 2013 season. For those of you too lazy to click the link, I will paraphrase – what Harper has done at age 19, using home runs and OPS as measures of success, hasn’t been done very often, and typically not in the same way that Harper did it in 2012. As such, his encore performance in 2013 is hard to predict, given his unique skill set.

So we have a tough task ahead of us, fair enough. Let’s take what Kory has given us, fiddle with the numbers a bit, and add a little something more, shall we?

Thanks to Baseball Reference, we have all of Harper’s numbers at our fingertips – let’s compare them to what others have done at age 19 historically, looking at both OPS+ and BRef’s version of Wins Above Replacement – rWAR. For Harper, he came in at a respectable 119 OPS+ and a 5.0 rWAR in his age 19 season – so respectable, that no one else in baseball history has performed above that  OPS+/rWAR combination as a teenager. Let’s loosen the criteria a tad – the only other players in MLB history aside from Harper to have an OPS+ greater than 119 along with a rWAR greater than 2.0 as teens were Ty Cobb (132 OPS+/2.3 rWAR) and Mel Ott (139/3.7), both of whom were mentioned in Kory’s article. As a rough guide, a 2.0 rWAR is considered starter level output; anything at 5.0 or above is All Star quality.

The numbers so far are historical, and may or may not be predictive of future performance. Of course, we won’t know for a while whether Harper will repeat his 119 OPS+/5.0 rWAR 2012, but we can see if Cobb and Ott duplicated or bettered their age 19 seasons as 20 year olds, as measured by OPS+ and rWAR. To the numbers (courtesy of Baseball Reference)!

Player Year Team G PA AB BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ WAR
Cobb 1907 DET 150 642 605 0.350 0.380 0.468 0.848 167 6.6
Ott 1929 NYG 150 675 545 0.328 0.449 0.635 1.084 165 7.3

Well, then. If history is to be trusted, Harper has some work ahead of him this year, if he is to equal his historical equals with regards to his age 20 season. Looking only at rWAR, Cobb’s age 20 saw a 187% increase in rWAR, with Ott showing a 97% increase in rWAR the year after his age 19 3.7 rWAR season. For Harper to emulate these jumps in performance, he would have to finish 2013 with at least a 9.8 rWAR; 56 seasons of 9.8 rWAR or greater have been seen in MLB history, the most recent being Mike Trout‘s 2012 10.7 rWAR season… at age 20.

Right now, Harper is looking at some heady numbers to put up come the regular season to keep up with the Cobbs and Otts of the MLB world, and continue the statistical trajectory he has set himself upon into his 20’s. As previously mentioned, he’s doing a heck of a job of doing just that thus far in spring training. Let’s look at some more data and take a sampling of who is performing as well as, if not better than Harper thus far in spring training, and see if we can gain anything from it, as it pertains to Harper’s potential for 2013. For this table, we are looking at players who have a 1.205 OPS or better in 33 or more spring training plate appearances (PA):

Name Age Team OppQual PA  H HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Robinson, Shane 27 STL 8.8 34 15 3 11 0.500 0.559 0.967 1.525 29
Belt, Brandon 24 SF 9.3 34 15 4 9 0.455 0.471 0.939 1.410 31
Bradley, Jackie 22 BOS 7.9 35 15 1 4 0.536 0.629 0.714 1.343 20
Baker, Jeff 31 TEX 8.5 37 18 1 6 0.529 0.568 0.735 1.303 25
Peguero, Carlos 25 SEA 7.9 33 12 3 4 0.400 0.455 0.833 1.288 25
Blanks, Kyle 25 SD 8.2 42 13 2 8 0.406 0.500 0.781 1.281 25
Yelich, Christian 20 FLA 8.5 42 13 3 11 0.371 0.476 0.771 1.248 27
Peterson, Shane 24 OAK 7.7 36 16 1 6 0.457 0.472 0.743 1.215 26
Harper, Bryce 19 WSH 8.9 33 14 2 4 0.438 0.455 0.750 1.205 24

Even as hot as Harper’s bat has been to start 2013, there are plenty of others that are just as locked in; also of note is the lack of star players on the list, aside from Brandon Belt. Looking at it from another perspective, we can also say that Harper is doing all of this against close to MLB quality opponents, as seen with his 8.9 OppQual stat. OppQual – or Opponent Quality – is a new stat from Baseball Reference, which attempts to grade the quality of the pitchers a hitter faces in spring training. Given the number of players invited to participate in spring training, from guys just out of rookie league ball, up to MLB veterans, this value is a nice way to help determine whether spring training hitting stats have some bite to them. While Harper will of course face better pitching come the regular season, it won’t be by much, if OppQual is to be taken into consideration; MLB level quality opponents are scored a 10, with AAA level players scoring an 8 per OppQual. Harper’s 8.9 and Belt’s 9.3 show that they are hitting against just about MLB quality opponents.

While the numbers and methods to the madness that I have presented are in no way the be all, end all, I think they lend themselves some credibility in explaining not only how special a player Bryce Harper has been already, but could possibly be. On the other side of the coin, it also shows that a tempering of expectations is necessary, not only to keep things in perspective regarding Harper’s possible place in baseball history, but also within the context of a season, a season that really hasn’t truly begun. For every Albert Pujols, who led all hitters in spring training OPS in 2012, there’s a Kila Ka’aihue, who ‘won’ spring training OPS honours in 2011, only to follow it up with a 69 OPS+ that season for the Kansas City Royals.

While many will consider this perspective to be one straight out of a Debbie Downer skit, it’s one that allows sanity to remain firmly in one’s grasp, something that many baseball fans can’t boast (see: Cubs, Chicago).

No matter what Harper does in 2013 and beyond, he still has much to be proud of. Harper has already bettered fellow Las Vegan and former Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova, not only in garnering All Star honours – something no position player born in Vegas can boast – but also by not missing games after succumbing to tanning booth sunburn.

Ahh, silver linings.