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Thursday, April 11, 2013
Harper's aggressiveness hasn't hurt him yet

By David Schoenfield

Through nine games, Bryce Harper is hitting .417 with four home runs and eight RBIs, and is showing why Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson believed in hitting the 20-year-old third in the lineup.

In Thursday's 7-4 victory over the White Sox, he lined two RBI singles, but there was even more good news: Harper drew his first walk of the season. (He actually drew two, but one was intentional.)

You might think I obsess too much over walks, but they're important for two reasons. One, they create value; you want hitters with high on-base percentages because the fewer outs you make, the more runs you score. Second, controlling the strike zone makes you a better hitter, especially for a developing young guy such as Harper. So when I noticed he hadn't drawn a walk through his first eight games, I was worried -- despite the positive returns -- that maybe he was being too aggressive at the plate and that approach would eventually work against him. In Wednesday's game, for example, he went 2-for-4 but saw just eight pitches.

Let's backtrack for a second here. Through Aug. 15 of last year, Harper was hitting .245/.321/.396 (BA/OBP/SLG). From Aug. 17 until the end of the season, he hit .327/.384/.660, with 12 home runs in 179 plate appearances. I wondered whether part of the reason for his improvement was any kind of change in his approach. Here, let's check out two heat maps:

Bryce Harper
Bryce Harper hit .245 with 10 home runs through Aug. 15 last season ...
Bryce Harper
... then went .327 with 12 home runs the rest of the way.

A lot of numbers there, but his swing percentage didn't really change much; he just started hitting better. The raw numbers:

Through Aug. 15
Swing rate: 49.8 percent
Chasing outside the zone: 31.7 percent
Pitches in zone: 42.9 percent

Aug. 17 to end of season
Swing rate: 50.4 percent
Chasing outside the zone: 33.5 percent
Pitches in zone: 42.4 percent

Entering Thursday's game, the numbers looked like this for 2013:

Swing rate: 60.5 percent
Chasing outside the zone: 41.5 percent
Pitches in zone: 51.4 percent

He was being more aggressive, but that was due in part to seeing more balls in the strike zone. His chase percentage was up a little; again, it was only eight games, but that's why I wanted to check in on him.

On Thursday, not including the final three pitches of the intentional walk, Harper saw 16 pitches and swung at eight of them. In the third, he swung at a first-pitch low 89 mph fastball from Dylan Axelrod and grounded it hard up the middle for an RBI hit. In the eighth, he lined a 1-2 Jesse Crain curveball to right for another run-scoring single. His walk came on five pitches against lefty Hector Santiago in the fifth with Denard Span on first -- although Harper did foul off a 3-0 fastball.

Harper's aggressiveness hasn't hurt him yet. And it should be pointed out he drew 56 walks as a rookie in 597 PAs, a walk rate of 9.4 percent that was a little higher than the major league average of 8 percent. Not bad for a 19-year-old.

We're just a few days into the season, but if there's a conclusion here, it's that Harper is going to swing as long as he's seeing a lot of pitches in the zone. Pitchers will adjust if Harper keeps hitting .417. Will Harper adjust?

That's the scary thing. He's still learning. We saw what happened in just a few short months last year. Imagine what might happen over the next five-plus months in 2013.