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Entries in curveballs (2)

Tuesday
Feb252014

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.

Friday
Dec202013

Jesus Montero Hacking His Way Back to Triple-A

Few trades in recent memory have been as sexy -- and subsequently disappointing -- as the Jesus Montero-Michael Pineda deal consummated by the Yankees and Mariners in January of 2012. Back then, it looked like an old-fashioned challenge trade of potential franchise cornerstones -- your hitting prodigy for my fireballing ace. Instead, Pineda has yet to throw a single pitch in the majors for New York, missing the entire 2012 season following labrum surgery and trying to regain his stuff in the minors late in 2013. Montero, meanwhile, has played like a minor league lifer (career 0.3 Wins Above Replacement) and is buried on the Mariners' 2014 first base/DH depth chart behind the likes of Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Justin Smoak. The 6-foot-3, 230 pound Montero's squatting days are already over, due to a mix of injuries (a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2013), downright Doumitian glove work, and the arrival of well-rounded top prospect Mike Zunino.

It's hardly a shock that Montero, who also served a 50-game PED suspension last year, is no longer catching. His work behind home plate has long been panned, and even his most ardent supporters were only hoping that he could fake it in a Mike Piazza kind of way. Montero can't, as his career caught stealing rate (14 percent) is barely half that of the league average (26 percent), and his called strike rate on pitches thrown in the strike zone (76 percent) is the lowest among all backstops over the past three years, save for Ryan Doumit

Montero's predictable slide down the defensive spectrum wouldn't be so bad if he had developed into the devastating hitter that scouts had long prophesized. But that hasn't happened: in 732 major league plate appearances, he has a park-and-league-adjusted on-base-plus-slugging percentage that's three percent below average. Ditching his catcher's mask raised the bar on Montero's bat -- as a DH/first base type, he has to swat homers and get on base to be worth a roster spot. It's hard to say who the 24-year-old is at this point. He's not a catcher, and he's not a slugger. Which is why he'll almost assuredly be a Tacoma Rainer in 2014, assuming GM Jack Zduriencik doesn't sell low on the former top-five prospect.

The hulking righty hitter has already proven that he can mash fastballs at the highest level. But if Montero is to escape Triple-A purgatory and eventually join Robinson Cano in the middle of the M's lineup, he'll have to start laying off curveballs, sliders and changeups thrown off the plate. The stud once likened to Piazza and Miguel Cabrera is now drawing parallels to young hitters undone by their hacking like Jeff Francoeur and Delmon Young.

Against fastballs, Montero looks like a seasoned pro. While he chases heaters slightly more often (28.7 percent) than the average hitter (25.4 percent), he's also slugging .514 (about 80 points above the MLB average). Fourteen of Montero's 22 career homers have come off fastballs. When pitchers challenge him, Montero makes them pay with decent plate patience and serious power.

They rarely challenge him, though, as Montero has seen the fifth-lowest percentage of fastballs (42.2 percent) among AL hitters logging 500-plus plate appearances from 2011-13. There's a good reason for that approach -- Montero gets himself out against breaking and off-speed stuff by chasing pitches off the edges and in the dirt.

Montero's swing rate by pitch location versus breaking and off-speed pitches, 2011-13

MLB average swing rate by pitch location versus breaking and off-speed pitches, 2011-13

Montero has chased 42.2 percent of curves, sliders and changeups thrown outside of the strike zone, way above the 31.7 percent MLB average. That puts Seattle's hoped-for cleanup hitter in the same neighborhood as Francoeur (44.1 percent) and Young (44.8 percent), among other bad-ball swingers.

It's no secret that plate judgment is paramount for batters, but the difference between swinging at a ball and a strike is, well, striking. When hitters swing at a breaking or off-speed pitch thrown out of the zone, they slug .187. When they swing at a strike, they slug .474. Chase a curve, slider or changeup off the plate, and you hit like a pitcher. Swing at a strike, and you're suddenly Pedro Alvarez

Montero isn't a lost cause, but his plate approach needs a serious overhaul if he's going to rake in the majors. Currently, pitchers can toss soft stuff galore and watch with glee as he buries himself in the count or makes weak contact. There's no reason to let him pull a fastball into the bleachers when he's so eager to lunge at unhittable junk. Montero could still become a Paul Konerko-esque slugger, overcoming a rough big league introduction and crushing enough pitches to make a difference at a bat-only position. Short of learning to lay off soft stuff, though, Montero will join free-swingers like Francoeur and Young in top prospect infamy.