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Criticism Aside, Harper Keeps Improving

Bryce Harper is 21 years old, launched more home runs during his age 19 and 20 seasons (42) than any hitter since Tony Conigliaro a half-century ago, and racked up as many Wins Above Replacement over that period (nine) as Ty Cobb. Yet, for all of Harper's early-career accomplishments -- or perhaps because of them -- we like to nit-pick his performance. Can Harper, limited to 118 games last year due to a left knee injury, learn to avoid brain-rattling outfield collisions while retaining his competitive fire? Why hasn't he joined fellow phenom prospect Mike Trout among the game's truly elite? Was it really such a good idea for Harper to challenge Jesus Montero to an eating contest during the offseason? (He lost, apparently.)

With the focus on Harper's playing style and off-field plate discipline, some might have overlooked his across-the-board offensive improvement in 2013. Harper boosted his batting average (from .270 as a rookie in 2012 to .274), on-base percentage (.340 to .368) and slugging percentage (.477 to .486) while also sharpening his strike-zone control (his walk-to-strikeout ratio climbed from 0.47 to 0.65). His park-and-league-adjusted OPS spiked from 18 percent above average to 33 percent above average. By any measure, Harper's bat became even more lethal in 2013.

How, exactly, did Harper post arguably the best offensive showing by an age-20 corner outfielder since Tony C? Here's a closer look at his gains in controlling the zone and clubbing pitches deeper into the gaps.

No More Trouble with the Curve

Harper increased his OBP by nearly 30 points thanks to a more refined plate approach in 2013. After walking in 9.4% of his plate appearances as a rookie, Harper drew ball four 12.3% of the time last year. Granted, pitchers tiptoed around the Nationals slugger, throwing him fewer pitches in the strike zone last season (41.2%) than in 2012 (42.3%). Only Pablo Sandoval (37.2%) got a lower rate of in-zone offerings among players batting at least 400 times in 2013. Still, to Harper's credit, he did a better job of laying off those pitches tossed off the corners and in the dirt.

Harper chased less often no matter the pitch type, but he made the biggest strides in containing himself versus curveballs. While he chased hooks at the fifth-highest clips among all National League hitters in 2012, Harper displayed above-average discipline in 2013.

Harper's chase rate by pitch type, 2012-13


Harper lunged at plenty of low-and-away curveballs as a rookie. Last year, he let pitches thrown below the knees go by. His chase rate on low curves plummeted, from 45.6% in 2012 to 28.3% in 2013.

Harper's swing rate vs. curveballs, 2012

Harper's swing rate vs. curveballs, 2013

Fewer punchouts 

Harper also connected on pitches more often last year, paring his strikeout rate from 20.1% to 18.9%. While he whiffed more often against changeups, he more than offset that uptick by making more contact versus fastballs and breaking stuff. Once again, Harper improved most against curveballs.

Harper's miss rate by pitch type, 2012-13


Deeper drives, More Pull Shots

At first blush, Harper's already-impressive pop didn't improve much from 2012 to 2013. His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) barely budged, from .206 to .212. Dig a little deeper, though, and Harper looks primed to hit bombs and blow kisses more often in 2014.

Harper swatted fly balls an average of 273 feet as a rookie, which was slightly above the MLB average (269 feet) and in the same range as second basemen Jose Altuve and Neil Walker. Last year, Harper hit fly balls an average of 285 feet -- the same as David Ortiz and Joey Votto, and farther than Trout (281 feet). That helps explain why Harper's home run per fly ball rate climbed from 15.7% to 19.2%, cracking the top 20 among MLB hitters.

He also put the ball in play to the opposite field less often in 2013 (28.5%) than in 2012 (36.8%), instead cranking more pitches to center field and the pull side. Like many hitters, Harper does more damage when he pulls the ball (career .853 slugging percentage) or lines a pitch to center field (.564) than when he goes oppo (.484). With Harper hitting deeper -- and more frequent -- shots to center field and the pull side, he could top 30 homers next year.

Bryce Harper isn't at Mike Trout's level, at least not yet. And yeah, he does need to stop face-planting into fences. But let's not forget that he's already a star-caliber major leaguer despite being the same age as this year's top college prospects, and he's constantly improving. Let's stop nit-picking, and enjoy the beginnings of an inner-circle Cooperstown career.


Cruz to the O's: More Comp Pick Hijinx, or Sign of a Rational Market?

Nelson Cruz reportedly entered the offseason seeking a four-year, $75 million contract. Over the weekend, he settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Cruz's agent might take a page out of Scott Boras' playbook and label this a "pillow" contract designed to re-establish the 33-year-old, Biogenesis-linked slugger's value. If so, it's gotta be the world's lumpiest, hard-as-concrete pillow.

Some will point to Cruz's new deal as further proof that Major League Baseball's free agent draft pick compensation system is broken. In broad strokes, there's plenty to complain about. Free agents who receive and turn down a qualifying offer essentially have a tax levied on their next contract, with interested teams needing to consider not just the monetary value of the player's on-field production, but also the value of the pick they'd lose to sign him (Baltimore had less to lose than most, having already surrendered its first-rounder to ink Ubaldo Jimenez and its Competitive Balance Lottery pick to acquire Bud Norris; they'll lose the 55th overall selection to get Cruz). It's not fair, really.

And yet, you can make a pretty sound argument that in this particular case, Cruz is being paid what he's worth. He launches majestic homers with the best of them, but there's not much else to his game at this point. Consider:

  • Cruz's .319 on-base percentage over the past three seasons is a dead ringer for the overall MLB average, and south of the standards set by corner outfielders (.328) and designated hitters (.323). Once you adjust for park and league factors, his three-year OPS is 12 percent better than the MLB average -- good, but hardly the stuff of fat free agent deals.
  • He has a history of hamstring/quadriceps injuries, which have made him a plodding base runner and fielder. Cruz has taken an extra base between 22% and 30% of the time over the past three years, compared to the 40% big league average. He has been several runs worse than an average major leaguer on the bases each season, according to Fangraphs, and has cost his club about five runs per year in the field as judged by advanced metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Cruz may DH in Baltimore, but he's been DH-worthy for a while now.
  • Players with Cruz's profile -- lots of power, little defensive or base running value, frequently banged up -- tend to age poorly. His Baseball-Reference player comps include Henry Rodriguez (done as a productive major leaguer by age 32), Brad Hawpe (cooked at 31) and Jay Gibbons (last effective at 29). His number one comp according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is Juan Gonzalez. These guys had lots of injury issues (I pulled a hammy just writing this paragraph), but that's kind of the point. Cruz hasn't been a beacon of durability, either. He's not the sort of player you want to sign to a long-term deal, much less the four or five-year pact Cruz initially wanted.

Let's be clear: There's nothing wrong with the O's signing Cruz at this price. It's a short-term commitment, and he's a definite upgrade over the likes of Nolan Reimold and Henry Urrutia. But put it all together, and Cruz projects to be about 1-2 wins better in 2014 than the sort of talent you can pull from Triple-A or the waiver wire. If the cost of a win is around $6 million, it's hard to say that he really got jobbed by the pick attached to his name. The qualifying offer system may well be broken, but Cruz's deal seems to be more a case of sanity prevailing in the C-suite.


Ian Desmond Sacrifices Patience for Power

Between the talk of Jordan Zimmermann potentially being the best pitcher in Washington's rotation, whether Stephen Strasburg can finally reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career, expectations for first-year manager Matt Williams and Bryce Harper's new favorite tee-shirt, one storyline has quietly evaded headlines this spring at Nationals' camp: Ian Desmond's reported rejection of a multi-year contract extension. Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post first reported the story in a reader chat online, citing that the proposed deal may have surpassed the $90 million threshold.

While Desmond and the Nationals were able to work out a two-year contract extension to avoid arbitration last month, the 28-year-old shortstop is still on track to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Considering this, it makes little sense for Desmond to turn down such an offer, if only because his stock has never been higher. His last two seasons have been very productive, posting a .812 OPS and .285 average (first and second-best among shortstops with 1,000 plate appearances since 2012), which has helped earn him back-to-back silver slugger awards. He's been reliable as anyone with the glove, moreover, posting a .849 revised zone rating that tops all qualified shortstops over the past two seasons, according to FanGraphs.

But make no mistake: It's been Desmond's bat that's transformed him into one of the most complete shortstops in baseball. And the key factor behind his offensive coming-out party has been his aggressiveness at the dish.

Desmond's Isolated Power Relative to Pitch Location, 2010-2011

Desmond's Isolated Power Relative to Pitch Location, 2012-2013

Desmond's first two full seasons (2010-2011) with Washington were less than overwhelming, generating a .261/.303/.375 slash line with in 308 games (markedly below the league-average .267/.323/.386 line for qualified shortstops in that span). He was patient at the plate in these two seasons, offering at just 46.9% of all pitches thrown to him (compared to the 45% league average swing rate); however, he drew walks in just 5.2% of his plate appearances, which was well below the 8.7% league mark in that span. So while Desmond's patience was encouraging, he wasn't drawing enough walks to justify such a low swing rate.

Dramatic changes in this respect have come to fruition over Desmond's last two campaigns, however. In his most valuable season to date in 2012, the former Expos third-round draft pick increased his swing rate to 54.4%, a dramatic spike from the 45.1% rate he posted in 2011. Consequently, his slugging percentage that season rose to .511 (a career-best) and his walk rate actually remained at a steady 5.5% over both seasons. Last season, Desmond held back a bit more, pulling the trigger 50.3% of the time and, wouldn't you know it, his SLG% dropped to .453.

So from swinging at a combined 46.9% of all offerings between 2010-2011 to 52.1% from 2012-2013, Desmond's .374 SLG% in the first span jumped to .480 in the next. The driving force behind this increase was easily his aggressiveness early in counts, offering at 41.9% of first-pitches in his plate appearances in his last two seasons compared to 30.9% from 2010-2011. Conversely, his swing rate with two strikes has ever so slightly decreased from 59.3% previously to 59.1% over his most recent two campaigns.

What we're seeing here is an offensive transformation for Desmond. He's becoming more aggressive at the plate, especially early in counts, and becoming better at holding off in two-strike counts. Now, his offensive game plan is more oriented toward power than patience in a Washington lineup that's already one of the best in baseball. And that's a scary thought.