Beyond The Strikeouts: Exploring Bryce Harper's Start With the Phillies

In case you haven’t heard, Bryce Harper is struggling. Through play on Monday, May 20, he’s hitting just .229 with nine home runs, despite a recent five-game hitting streak and having homered in consecutive games over the weekend. He’s struck out a whopping 63 times, which is equal to 31 percent of his plate appearances.

Harper has always been a polarizing figure, and his slow start has provided a two-for-one opportunity for the haters. Not only have Harper detractors been able to revel in his early issues over the first two months of his massive $330 million contract, but they’ve gotten a chance to take shots at the Philadelphia fanbase, who (unsurprisingly) haven’t been shy about voicing their displeasure as the strikeouts have piled up.

But as easy as it is to look at the strikeouts and the poor average and make jokes and conclude that the Phillies have made a massive mistake, it’s also an incredibly shallow approach and one that misses the bigger picture.

Despite the early struggles, Harper is on pace to be very near or above 100 runs, walks and RBI, as he has posted 31 RBI, scored 29 runs, and walked 35 times so far in 2019. That’s high-quality production in spite of a near-record strikeout pace.

Furthermore, Harper is coming through for the Phillies in the highest leverage situations. He’s hitting .308 with three home runs and 20 RBI with runners in scoring position. With runners and scoring position and two outs, his average jumps to .357 with nine RBI. He’s also 2-4 with a home run and six RBI with the bases loaded. High-priced talent is expected to deliver in clutch situations, and Harper has delivered plenty of big hits in his short time as a Phillie.

Building on the big hit notion, Harper is one of the few players in baseball that can deliver mammoth, momentum-changing blows on a consistent basis. Much like a jump-out-of-your-seat dunk in basketball, Harper’s moonshots can put a jolt into the crowd, deliver energy and confidence to his teammates, and leave the opposing pitcher thinking twice about his pitch selection. Take this 466-foot blast from Saturday afternoon as an example.

While we can debate the merits of Harper’s individual statistics for days, the reality is that baseball is a team game, and his impact on the Phillies’ lineup has been clear.

Jean Segura, the player hitting directly in front of Harper, is hitting .322, 34 points above his career average. His on-base percentage is .365, a 36-point increase over his career number. Segura has been a spark plug out of the two-hole, thriving with Harper lurking behind him.

Rhys Hoskins, hitting behind Harper in the cleanup spot, is feasting courtesy of both Segura’s production and Harper’s patience. Hoskins is on pace to cruise past his career-high 96 RBI, punishing pitchers that are too careful with Harper and picking up his slack through the cold stretches.

Maikel Franco struggled a season ago, especially with his power numbers, when he was relied upon as a key part of the heart of the Phillies’ lineup. This year, he has turned into one of the most productive eight hitters in baseball. A prolonged cold streak dating back to the end of April has sent his average tumbling, but he has produced seven home runs and 28 RBI, more than doubling the RBI of the next closest No. 8 hitter in the game. While the Phillies would like to see his average bounce back, he’s on pace to be close to his career-highs in homers and RBI, and that kind of power production from the bottom of the order has been huge for Philadelphia.

Finally, and most importantly, the Phillies are in first place, exactly where sites like Bet365 expected them to be based on their off-season additions. Last time I checked, that’s kind of the point. And it’s undeniable that Bryce Harper is a big part of the reason the Phillies have had early-season success.

Yes, a batting average that until recently was on a fast-track to the Mendoza line is unbecoming of a player making $330 million. And yes, strikeouts are incredibly unproductive and easy to make fun of, especially when they are coming at a near-historic clip. But the reality is that Bryce Harper has had a resoundingly positive impact on the Phillies’ lineup and that even with the current struggles he remains on pace for a solidly productive season.

Harper is a notoriously streaky player and has clearly been in a cold phase for much of the early season. Regardless, he’s got a better slugging percentage and OPS than he did during his All-Star season in 2016. There’s almost certainly a hot streak coming at some point, making a season on-par or even slightly better than his career averages a very real possibility.

Bolstering the optimism is the fact that Harper has traditionally performed better in the second half of the season. In four of his seven seasons, his best month has come in June or later. For his career, he’s hit slightly better in the second half than in the first, and outside of March/April, his best months in terms of average have been August and September, where he’s hit .293 and .283, respectively.

Let us wrap up by briefly touching on Harper's defense. His fielding was a bit of a cause for concern during his free agency, but he's acquitted himself well so far in 2019. He's committed just one error while compiling four outfield assists, including three "kills" (runner thrown out at home). His 6.4 percent kill percentage is well above his career average of 2.3 percent. Harper has also held runners at their current bases 53.2 percent of the time, a modest improvement from his career number. He's even added in a few web gems for good measure. Even though the offense struggles, he's making an impact with his glove and arm.

So, don’t let the memes and the hot takes cloud your perception. Harper has been a net positive for the Phillies, and even a slight rebound in batting average presents a scary proposition for the National League.

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