Bryce Harper, the Phillies’ $330 million man, has hit the skids in a big way. Since April 21, the six-time All-Star has hit .147/.301/.294 with four doubles, a pair of homers, and 11 RBI in 83 plate appearances spanning 20 games. He has struck out in 28 of those plate appearances while walking 14 times.
As a unit, the Phillies have been performing well despite Harper’s slump, winning 12 of those 20 games, a .600 winning percentage that lines up with their overall 24-16 record. Of course, the Phillies presumably could have turned some of those eight losses into wins if only Harper had been hitting better.
Columns, such as this one by Neil Greenberg for the Washington Post, are increasingly appearing and certainly will continue to until Harper corrects course. The most glaring stat causing consternation is Harper’s 30.5 percent strikeout rate, which would be by far a career-high if the season were to end today and would mark a nine percent increase over his career average. Only 14 qualified batters have struck out more often than Harper. Harper hasn’t just been swinging and missing at strike threes, either — his overall contact rate of 66.3 percent, per FanGraphs, would be a career-worst and is about 8.5 percent above his career average.
That being said, Harper’s year-to-year declines in contact percentage have dipped by around the same amount. In 2016, his contact percentage was 79.1 percent, but dipped to 74.7 percent the next season, a 4.4 percent dip. It fell to 70.8 percent in 2018, a 3.9 percent fall. And this year’s 66.3 percent represents a 4.5 percent decline. The league’s overall contact rate hasn’t declined that drastically, but has seen a regular year-over-year decline from 78.2 to 77.5 to 76.9 to 76. What if part of Harper’s swing and miss problems can be explained by pitchers throwing harder? Perhaps because of his notoriety, pitchers and coaches spend extra time preparing for him specifically? At any rate, Harper’s 4.4 percent decline from 2016 to ’17 didn’t concern us because his OPS increased from .814 to 1.008. Why should this 4.4 percent decline in particular raise alarm bells if the others didn’t?
As Greenberg mentioned in his article, the quality of Harper’s contact — when he does make contact — is still great. FanGraphs groups contact quality into three buckets: soft, medium, and hard. Harper’s hard-hit percentages since 2016 have been 34.1, 34.3, 42.3, and 41.1. His career average is 35.8 percent. I have been intentionally omitting Harper’s MVP season in 2015 because it was such an outlier, but he had a 40.9 hard-hit percentage that year. When Harper meets bat to ball, he’s hitting the ball as well as he did as an MVP.