- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Mike Trout and Bryce Harper will forever be linked after they burst on to the scene in 2012, Trout as an MVP candidate as a 20-year-old, Harper with maybe the best season ever by a 19-year-old position player. As much as we've talked about them the past two-plus seasons, Monday's game in Washington will be the first head-to-head meeting between the two.
While Trout's star ascended in 2013 with another MVP runner-up finish, Harper got off to a hot start in April before injuries took their toll and he finished with similar numbers to his rookie season. It's easy to forget that Harper may have been the best player in baseball last April, when he hit .344/.430/.720 with nine home runs, six doubles, 18 RBIs and nearly as many walks (14) as strikeouts (16). A year ago, the Trout-versus-Harper debate was still legitimately raging.
On May 13, however, Harper crashed chin-first into the wall at Dodger Stadium. He missed one game and listed what was sore the day after the collision: "Both legs, [left] shoulder, ribs, hand, wrist, chin of course."
Whether that collision was the direct cause or not, Harper wasn't the same player the rest of the season and would undergo knee surgery in the offseason. Check out his hit chart last year through May 13 and how it looks since:
Of those 10 early home runs, he had pulled seven of them to right field, and six of the 10 came on inside pitches. Since the collision, he's hit 11 home runs -- and only pulled two to right field (the one home run he's hit in 2014 doesn't show up on the hit chart above, but it was yanked over the right-field foul pole).
Again, it's hard to say how much the knee bothered him last year, and his opposite-field home runs showcased his raw power, but home run hitters still make a living pulling the majority of their home runs. During that hot start, Harper hit .344/.417/.938 on inside pitches; since then he's .265/.452/.426 on inside pitches.
Through May 13 last year, 25.7 percent of pitches Harper saw were classified as inside -- the inner third of the plate or in and off the plate. Since then, that number is 23.6 percent, although it's only 19.3 percent in 2014. Pitchers are certainly challenging Harper less often inside, but when he does get inside pitches he's not doing much damage.
Some of this frustration may have reached a boiling point Saturday -- for Harper and manager Matt Williams, when Harper was removed from the game after not running out a tapper back to the pitcher's mound. When factoring in that Williams batted Harper as low as seventh earlier in the season (he's been moved back up to second in the past five games), it's clear that the Nationals' skipper is trying to teach his young star some lessons. To me, it seems the biggest lesson is one Williams can't help: Harper is still learning to adjust to major league pitching.
Trout has had no issues adjusting to whatever adjustments pitchers have tried to make to him, although he did go 0-for-4 on Saturday with four strikeouts. But he enters Monday's game hitting .307 and leading the American League with a .613 slugging percentage, and already atop the AL leaderboard for WAR.
As I've touched upon here before, back in spring training Trout said he wanted to be more aggressive this year on first pitches or when ahead in the count. His overall swing rate is up 3 percent over 2013, but his chase percentage -- the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he's swung at -- is up from 21 percent to 27 percent. Perhaps as a result, his strikeouts are up and his walks are down so far from 2013; he's on pace for 198 strikeouts and 63 walks after going 136 and 110 a year ago. That hasn't hurt his productivity yet, and I suspect those walk and strikeout numbers will eventually fall back closer to a 1-1 ratio, in part because Trout has killed fastballs so far (.378, four of his five home runs). If he gets fed more off-speed pitches, expect the walk rate to go back up.
While we'll all be watching the Trout-Harper showdown, this is a big road trip for the Angels -- six games against the Nationals and then six against the Yankees. Despite the strong start from Trout (and Albert Pujols, who has six home runs to give him 498 for his career), the Angels are 8-10, hoping to avoid a third straight awful April.