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Bryce Harper’s totally baffling 2019 season

Some of the numbers being put up by Harper this season make absolutely no sense.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It seems inconceivable that, on May 28, Bryce Harper would be carrying a .227 batting average and a .438 slugging percentage into a three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citizens Bank Park.

No one expected Harper to have an OPS over 1.000 right away, but his OPS+ of 109 through 234 plate appearances indicates he’s only been a slightly better than average offensive player thus far. He’s aided by a healthy 15.8% walk rate (although that is down from the 18.7% he had last year) and his 31.2% strikeout rate is by far the highest of his career (last year he struck out 24.3% of the time).

It’s easy to see how Harper’s numbers have gotten so low. What’s more problematic is why and how come no one has been able to fix it.

Harper’s three main issues are that he’s not hitting at home, he’s not hitting fastballs, and he’s not hitting right-handed pitchers. The good news is those are extreme departures from what he’s historically been all about.

So much of the talk coming into the season was how well Harper had performed at Citizens Bank Park throughout his career. In 50 career games heading into 2019, Harper was the all-time leader at Citizens Bank Park in slugging (min. 200 PAs) at .564, and his overall slash line of .268/.365/.564 was also outstanding.

This year, Harper is hitting .206/.358/.474 at CBP, with an OPS of .833. That’s only slightly better than the .247/.351/.402 he’s hit on the road this year, and below what he has done historically in that park.

Harper’s struggles against the fastball have been well documented, but to sum up, he comes into tonight with a .247 average and a .452 slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs this year (according to Brooks Baseball). Last year he hit .304 and slugged .634 against that pitch and lifetime he’s a .283 hitter against the straight-ball with a .562 slugging percentage.

Hitters feast on fastballs, it’s what they’re supposed to hunt. For Harper to be missing so many hittable fastballs is both confounding and unsustainable and are also the big reason why he’s had such a problem with right-handed pitching this year.

In his career, Harper has hit right-handers much better than lefties, which is typical of most left-handed sluggers. Against righties he has a slash line of .283/.399/.535, a .939 OPS and a .251 ISO. This season, however, he’s batting a shockingly low .207/.353/.400, with a .753 OPS and a .193 ISO against them. He’s actually been hitting better against left-handers by a wide margin — .271/.358/.525, with an OPS of .884 and an ISO of .254.

Is it because Harper sees more breaking pitches from left-handers and is challenged with fastballs less? Is he keeping his front shoulder in longer against lefties than against righties. Does he try to muscle up against right-handers as opposed to just making solid contact against southpaws?

It’s probably a combination of all three, and/or some other weird mechanical thing that no one has been able to ascertain or get Harper to correct in game situations.

All of these issues are hurting Harper’s numbers but, fortunately, are all at odds with his history and would seemingly be unsustainable over the course of the entire 2019 season.

On Episode 289 of “Hittin’ Season,” Justin Klugh, Liz Roscher and I discussed Harper’s odd struggles but also talked in depth about what the Phillies’ identity is as they sit in first place at Memorial Day, the move of Nick Pivetta to the rotation, the official designation of Vince Velasquez to the bullpen, and who were the first Phils players we thought would be superstars but turned out not to be.