The early-season noise around such unexpectedly great hitters as Brewers stud Eric Thames has pulled attention away from the return of another prodigious slugger: Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper. Harper is making his triumphant comeback from the injuries that plagued him in 2016, and the advanced metrics show he’s ready to deliver another MVP-level year this season.
In his six-year MLB career, Harper has been equal parts incredible and disappointing. He appeared to reach his full potential in 2015, when he produced a .330/.460/.649 slash line en route to a season worth 9.5 wins above replacement. But last year Harper backslid dramatically, struggling with injuries and hitting a pedestrian (by his standards) .243/.373/.441. His drop-off between 2015 and 2016 was one of the largest declines in production ever.
But now Harper’s back — and maybe better than ever. It’s early in the season, but we can already see his recovery using MLB’s Statcast system, which tracks the launch angle and direction of every batted ball.
Last season, I wrote about how Harper’s batted-ball stats weren’t matching those of his MVP year, which suggested he might be injured.1 This season, though, Harper is well on his way to replicating his 2015 performance. For instance, after a down year in exit velocity, Harper’s average batted ball is once again leaving the bat at close to 90 miles an hour. (For comparison’s sake, he averaged 89.6 mph in 2015.)
His launch angle has also significantly improved. For most of 2016, Harper was elevating his swing, which resulted in the highest fly-ball rate of his career but also in more weak pop-ups. But this April, he’s back to the flat, line-drive cut that worked so well before. Hard, low-angle batted balls are a good recipe for success, so it’s no surprise that Harper is productive again.
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And Harper’s not just hitting the ball better. Even his plate discipline has improved: He’s currently posting a career-best walk rate and showing better strike-zone judgment than ever. So far this year, Harper is back to combining the willingness to wait for a hittable pitch with the strength to knock that pitch out of the park.
With all those improvements working together, Harper is a more dangerous hitter than ever. So far, he’s belted nine home runs in only 114 plate appearances, with an outrageous, Bonds-ian slugging percentage (.772) driving an overall offensive performance that’s 123 percentage points better than the league average. That exceeds even the lofty heights he achieved in 2015, when he “only” hit 97 percentage points better than league average. And in just 25 games — about a seventh of the season — he’s already racked up 2.1 WAR. If you project that out over a full season, he’d be on pace for another of the best years in the history of baseball.
Even setting aside Harper’s history of yo-yoing between greatness and mediocrity, it’s clear that he can’t stay this hot forever. Eventually, bad luck or injuries will drag Harper, Thames and all the other early-season leaders back to more mortal levels of production. (Indeed, Harper’s exit velocity might already be dropping slightly: Over his last 10 games, he’s averaged a more pedestrian 84.5 mph exit velocity.) But for now, baseball is better off with a superstar like Harper excelling again.