By the numbers: Harper’s impressive plate discipline put in historical context
by Jacob Emert | MLB.com
Bryce Harper made headlines on Thursday night with a spectacular score line — zero at-bats, zero hits, four runs, one RBI and four walks.
He saw 20 pitches in Washington’s 15-1 drubbing of Atlanta and didn’t swing once, as his walk total climbed to 104 for the year – second to only Cincinnati’s Joey Votto (116).
In 2015, 38.6% of the pitches thrown to Harper have been been in the strike zone, per FanGraphs.com’s zone %, the lowest percentage in all of baseball this season (note: this shows only where the ball was pitched — in or out of the zone — not the outcome — ball or strike). Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo and Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce are on his tail at 38.7%, but still, Harper has seen the fewest strikes as a percentage of total pitches in the MLB.
For context, Harper is on pace for a 127 walk season. Barry Bonds walked 198 times in 2002 and 232 times in 2004. In both those seasons, Bonds saw a significantly higher percentage of strikes than Harper is this year (43.1% in 2002; 44.1% in 2004). In fact, since FanGraphs began calculating zone % in 2002, Harper’s 2015 number is 13th lowest — Vladimir Guerrero saw 32.7% of his total pitches in the strike zone in 2007, and he probably hit half of the other 63% for home runs.
Harper has consistently said that he is content taking his walks and letting the players behind him drive him in. From Thursday night: “I’ve got confidence in everybody on our team to get a job done behind me,” Harper said. “I’ll take my walks when I can. And when they throw the ball over the plate, I’ll take my hits, too.”
Harper has displayed impressive patience this season, especially when juxtaposed against what he’s doing when he decides to swing. But the numbers show there is even more room to improve in terms of discipline. The 22-year-old has swung at 28.9% of the pitches out of the strike zone (O-Swing %) this season. That ranks 52nd in baseball. In 2014, the league average was 31.3%.
For comparison, 41.9% of the pitches Votto has seen this season are in the strike zone, but he has swung at pitches outside of the zone only 19.2% of the time (best in baseball this year). That is why Votto and Bonds have higher walk totals despite seeing a fewer percentage of pitches outside of the zone. In 2002, hitters across were thrown more strikes and chased fewer balls. Votto’s 19.2% would have ranked 109th, tied with Ryan Klesko, Neifi Perez and Terrence Long. John Olerud swung at only 9.1% of the pitches outside of the zone that year, and Bonds chased 11.5% of those pitches.
Back to 2015 and Harper. His walk total is impressive. No one should or will complain about 104 walks in 133 games. But, they also suggest a significant percentage of the balls he takes miss the zone by a substantial amount. In other words, Harper is a little better than league average in staying away from balls out of the zone, so his incredible walk percentage (19.4% of at-bats) is a result of pitchers giving him nothing near the zone. The fact that he hasn’t chased those pitches way out of the zone this season, even when the rest of the lineup around him has struggled, is a testament to his patience.
*Data from FanGraphs.com