Mashable: Bryce Harper's Trifecta

The first one went opposite field and into the Miami Marlins’ bullpen, lofted too high above Ichiro Suzuki to be remotely reached. Perhaps the hitter thought the relief pitchers needed an extra baseball to warm up with in the late innings.

The second one was directly deposited as easily as a lobbyist's money into a senator's bank account. There weren’t enough Bikram Yoga stretches in the world to get to that ball.

The third one went to College Park or somewhere close to the University of Maryland campus. The official measurement said 445 feet, but don’t be so sure that the statisticians got that right the first time.

Yes, Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper — he of the immeasurable hype coming out of high school, he the most scrutinized member of another World Series-or-bust team, he the leader of the “when he puts it all together” class of 2015 — had the single best day of his young career. In a day game against the Marlins, Harper had his first three-home-run game of his career as he sent offerings from the sacrificial lamb, Tom Koehler, into the cheap seats. Though it was a ground out in the seventh inning, his fourth at-bat resulted in his career-high five RBI and a further exultation from the Nationals Park crowd.

It seemed to be the day that reaffirmed the team’s commitment to the 22-year-old star outfielder, though the Nats probably didn’t need any more reassurance after seeing that he was essentially the only one to show up during last fall’s nightmare NLDS against the eventual champion San Francisco Giants.

Now, is this the athletic kick-starter to the possible MVP campaign once mentioned here at the start of the season? As Matt Whitener said about the All-Star voting push earlier this week, we are far too early to crown anyone as long as Dee Gordon — a good player, no doubt — is the surprise Major League leader in batting average and hits. Harper’s not killing it just yet — in fact, it was the first game he had more than two hits in a game to start the season. Yesterday also represented just the fifth game of the young season where he had an extra-base hit.

However, the Nationals have won seven of their last nine games after an auspicious start to the season. Harper, in particular, has more power than the same time last season. His eight home runs are not only tied for the lead in the majors with L.A. Dodgers 1B Adrian Gonzalez, but are also en route to eclipsing his 13 long balls for all of his injury-shortened 2014 campaign. The 26 walks are just 12 shy of what he drew a year ago. Despite the vacillating batting average (currently at .245), his on-base percentage is at a career-high clip of .405 thanks to the walks. Harper doesn’t hit into double plays often, and he has only done so once this year — and just 19 times in four seasons. He is even starting to draw intentional walks as five of his free passes so far were on pitchers' bailouts.

He’s shown more patience at the plate, at least in terms of drawing more walks than the same time in his previous three seasons. That matters because as ESPN’s David Schoenfield predicts, the better eye will lead to greater power numbers at the heart of the order.

I think the improved walk rate will lead to those better power numbers. It suggests better plate discipline, and thus the more likely scenario that he's swinging at a pitch he can drive. The skeptics might suggest that Harper is simply walking more because the injuries or poor play of the hitters around him have made it easier for pitchers to pitch around him or at least be more careful. Maybe there's a little truth to that — his percentage of pitches in the strike zone has decreased from 43.2 percent in 2014 to 40.6 percent — but all the indicators lead to a more patient Harper.

Here are his numbers in various categories compared to 2014:

Chase percentage on pitches out of the zone - 2014: 32.9 percent/2015: 27.3 percent

Swing rate - 2014: 51 percent/2015: 43.5 percent

Swing-and-miss rate - 2014: 29.7 percent/2015: 25.8 percent

How this translates into the rest of the spring will say a lot about Washington’s fortunes as the Nationals try to get back to the top of the National League perch. Harper’s arm already accounts for arguably the top defensive outfield in the Senior Circuit, and the Nationals have been in the top tier of power teams in NL for the last three years. If this newfound Bryce Harper keeps at this improved plate discipline and Washington takes its expected lead in the NL East, the seemingly premature MVP talk will get louder and louder into the summer months.

Besides, the hype machine needs some new material to work with.

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