Injuries have slowed Washington Nationals Bryce Harper’s growth in his first three seasons, but early in 2015, he’s healthy and playing the best baseball of his career.
The Nationals are 12-4 in May, and Harper is on a hot streak, batting .411 on the month to go with a .529 OBP, 1.511 OPS, nine home runs, and 22 RBI.
Harper is still only 22 years old and finally starting to live up to the hype when he entered MLB. After a slow start, he currently leads the NL in runs, home runs, RBIs, walks, OBP, and OPS.
Behind Harper’s improvement has been a subtle change to his approach in the batter’s box. While Harper has always had unreal power, he’s known to be aggressive at the plate, taking big cuts and chasing anything in his reach. Harper has been more patient at the plate in 2015, and it’s helping him to the best season of his career.
As ESPN’s David Schoenfield noted, Harper has improved in several areas that reflect this new patient approach. He’s chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone than in 2014, and his swing and swing-and-miss rates are all down from last season.
According to FanGraphs, Harper is posting a career-best walk percentage (21.2%), a lower strikeout percentage than in 2014, and a career-best batting average for balls-in-play at .383. He’s swinging at better pitches and getting more hits off those swings.
Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu described Harper’s progression to Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga:
“He wants to hit the ball in the seats. He wants to drive in runs. Especially with the team struggling a little bit [offensively], he wants to be the guy to knock in that run. Sometimes he’ll over-swing at times at some fastballs that he can usually hit if he’s staying calm.
“We always say, “Don’t rage out there.’ He just gets to trying so hard. Hitting is aggressive, but it’s got to be that controlled aggressiveness. He’s really starting to get that downshift.”
Nationals manager Matt Williams also described the importance of Harper’s patience to Svrluga:
“You also want to swing at a good pitch. You also want to swing at your pitch. To be patient enough to do that is important. It’s really important. So if they’re not going to going to throw you a pitch to hit, the nature of the game is to take your walk.”
Harper told Washington Post’s James Wagner about the helpful advice Williams gave him during spring training:
“He looked at me and said, ‘It’s not how far, it’s how many.’ You can get a ball out of the field that’s 375 and hit it 376. It still counts the same. You can hit a ball 900 feet. It still counts the same as 300 feet.”
Harper’s improved efficiency is also impressive considering, as Svrluga notes, Harper is batting between Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, who have batting averages of .202 and .243, respectively. Neither has an OBP above .300. He’s carrying the offence, driving in runs while still maintaining his efficiency.
With his newfound patience comes the scariest prospect of all: When the ball is in his zone, he can crush it. In mid-May, Harper had a string of three games where he hit six home runs, becoming the youngest player to achieve the feat in MLB history.
Harper’s combination of bat speed and strength is insane:
What Harper is doing is borderline unprecedented. Although it’s his fourth year in MLB, he’s still only 22. Mike Trout, the reigning MVP, and Kris Bryant, the Cubs’ super-prospect, are both older than Harper.
Harper is already one of the scariest batters in baseball, and he only stands to get better because of his combination of raw power, smarts, and efficiency at the plate.
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