Bryce Harper was the National League’s most valuable player in 2015. He was strong contender for MVP last year, before an injury in early August kept him out for about six weeks.
This year, however, Harper is struggling. His batting average has fallen below .220. His power, 22 home runs, and his walks, 76 of them, still make him a valuable player. But he’s no MVP, probably not even on his own team. His on-base plus slugging average number — .850 — is fifth best among Washington’s regular or semi-regular players.
What’s the problem? Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, blames opposing defenses. When Harper bats, they put three infielders on the right side, where Harper usually hits the ball, with the second baseman playing in short right field. As a result, many a ball off of Harper’s bat that would be a hit against a traditionally aligned defense becomes an out.
But these kinds of shifts have become common. All left-handed pull hitters face something like the alignment that greets Harper. They are losing hits too, but few have seen their batting average plummet the way Harper’s has. It’s also worth noting that Harper faced shifts consistently last season too.
Boras claims that shifts discriminate against left-handed hitters. Why? For two reasons. First, an infield can’t shift as radically to the pull side against right-handed batters because the first baseman needs to be fairly near the bag.
Second, most pitchers are right-handed, so they can pound their breaking balls in on lefties, making it difficult to hit the pitch to the opposite field. By contrast, a right-handed pitcher’s breaking ball tails away from a right-handed hitter, making it comparatively easy to hit to the opposite field.
But this disadvantage can be viewed as merely a partial offset of an advantage left-handed hitters have always enjoyed — they are less vulnerable to breaking balls from right-handed pitchers because a pitch breaking into the strike zone is easier to hit than a pitch that starts in on the hitter and snaps away into the strike zone or beyond.
Boras is in an interesting position here. Harper will be a free agent at the end of the season. Until recently, there was talk that of a contract worth $400 million or more. But who would pay that kind of money to a hitter who can be defensed?
Boras thus argues that Harper’s batting average is not indicative of his value. That’s true. As I explained above, taking Harper’s walks and his power into account, he’s having a good year. But not an exceptional one.
Boras also says that Harper “makes [teams] money in addition to the service he provides” because “he’s iconic.” That’s true too. But Harper didn’t become iconic by hitting .218. He won’t sell very many jerseys performing the way he is now.
Harper won’t keep performing that way, I predict. I believe most of his woes are simply the result of a prolonged slump, not defensive shifts. (The pressure of playing for a historic contract might also be a factor).
But if Harper wants a maximum return on his enormous talent, he will need to adjust at the plate. His manager, Dave Martinez, put it best:
[The shift has] taken away a lot of hits, obviously, and guys get frustrated. But it’s also leaving a lot of other holes open. I think, for me, players that have learned how to adjust with the shift are doing better as well. Players that keep hitting the ball into the shift . . . I think that’s why the batting average is really low a lot.
Baseball has always required players to adjust. In an age of data-based innovation, the ability to adjust has become all the more important. The biggest contracts should go to those who can keep up with the evolving game.