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May 25, 2012 / Nat Anacostia

Bryce Harper’s first 100 plate appearances

Bryce Harper has now passed 100 plate appearances, so we are starting to get a large enough sample to look at his approach at the plate. With 103 plate appearances in his first 24 games, he sports a batting line of .267/.350/.467, all of which are above the major league averages of .250/.317/.397. His walk rate (10.7%) and strikeout rate (17.5%) are also better than the major league averages (8.4 and 19.5). Although his strikeout rate is not really low, it’s actually the lowest of any of the Nats’ regulars, almost all of whom carry above-average strikeout rates.

When we look at his plate approach, however, his statistics start to stand out more. His plate approach has to be described as aggressive—he swings at 53% of the pitches he sees, ranking 20th among 241 major leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances. For pitches within the zone, he swings 76.5% of the time (ranking 10th) and for pitches outside the zone, he swings 37% of the time (ranking 27th).

In aggressiveness, his statistics are similar to the Nats’ strikeout kings, Rick Ankiel and Danny Espinosa. What makes the results different? When Harper swings at pitches outside the zone, he’s more likely to make contact. His contact rate for pitches outside the zone is 70.4%, better than the major league average of 67.1%. In contrast, Ankiel (58.6%) and Espinosa (55.9%) are well below average.

In terms of pitch types, Harper’s getting many fewer fastballs (44.7%) than the average major leaguer (57.4%). That appears to be a response to his success with hitting fastballs—a measure of his success against fastballs, linear weights, shows a rate of 2.31 per 100 pitches, which ranks 17th of 241 major leaguers. He’s also been successful against curve balls (2.80), but has struggled against sliders (–3.08). Not surprisingly, opposing teams have responded by pitching more sliders (18.1% compared to the average of 14.2) and changeups (14.4% versus 10.5).

While Harper has made a lot of contact, it hasn’t always been good contact. His line drive rate of 15.3% is below average (20.6%), and his infield fly rate of 16.7% is well above average (10.3). His HR/FB rate of 6.7% is also below average (10.6).

While it has to be emphasized that 103 plate appearances is a ridiculously small sample, I think some characteristics are becoming apparent. He’s an aggressive swinger, but he doesn’t look lost, as Espinosa and Ankiel sometime do. He’s a smart young hitter, so if he can learn to lay off of some of the pitches outside the zone, he may start making better contact and getting better results. He’s already a feared hitter, and the word is out there not to throw him fastballs in the zone. How well he adapts to a steady diet of sliders and changeups is going to determine how he’ll do as a major league hitter. But there’s a lot in these statistics that’s encouraging.

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