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Does Bryce Harper play better against the Washington Nationals?

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Is there any truth to the narrative that Harper ups his game against his former team?

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Whenever the Phillies play the Nationals, you’re bound to hear talk about Bryce Harper facing his former team. Oftentimes, the conversation is centered around whether or not Harper will hit better than usual in the upcoming series because his opponent is the Nats. But is this based in any fact? Since he joined the Phillies, has Bryce Harper hit especially well against the Washington Nationals?

I’ll get to the answer quickly – it’s no. The truth is, Harper’s offense has been resoundingly typical against his old squad.

Since the start of the 2019 season, Bryce Harper has hit .271 with an .918 OPS and a .374 wOBA in 35 games against the Nationals. Against all other opponents in that same time period, he’s hitting .264 with an .892 OPS and a .374 wOBA in 231 games. This shows, quite definitively, that Bryce Harper has been almost the exact same hitter against the Nationals as he has been against everyone else. So 266 games into Harper’s Phillies career, why is anyone still entertaining the narrative that he’s a Nationals killer?

Is it because Bryce Harper hits a lot of home runs against the Nationals? Home runs are cool!

Nope. Since 2019, Harper has averaged a home run every 21.43 PA against the Nationals, and he’s averaged a home run every 19.82 PA against all other teams.

Has Bryce Harper been instrumental in a lot of Phillies wins against the Nationals? Maybe it’s not just about his overall production, but the timing of his production.

Not really. Harper’s win probability added against the Nationals is lower than you would expect. Since joining the Phillies, Harper is averaging 4.32 WPA per 162 games, but against the Nationals he’s averaging just 2.03 WPA per 162 games.

On a similar note, has Bryce Harper come up particularly “clutch” against Washington?

Once again, the answer is no. According to FanGraphs, he hasn’t been “clutch” at all against the Nationals. His overall clutch score since 2019 is +0.89, but his clutch score against the Nats is -0.30.

So why is it that Phillies fans continue to believe Bryce Harper will tear the cover off the ball against his former team? Well, we can look to psychology for the answer.

Cognitive biases

The Anchoring Effect

The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.

In Bryce Harper’s first ever game against the Washington Nationals (April 2, 2019) he went 3 for 5 with a double and a home run. The home run was an incredible 458-foot blast, and it put the Phillies up 8-2. It’s very easy to understand how Phillies fans might use this incredible first game as an anchor upon which to base their opinions.

The Recency Effect

The recency effect is a cognitive bias in which those [things] that came last are remembered more clearly.

Bryce Harper has been excellent against the Nationals so far this season. In six games, he’s hitting .375/.444/.666. It’s not hard to see why those six games could have a stronger effect on one’s opinion than the 29 games that came before them.

The Availability Heuristic

[The availability heuristic is] a cognitive heuristic through which the frequency or probability of an event is judged by the number of instances of it that can readily be brought to mind.

Bryce Harper has struck out 43 times against the Nationals. That’s good for a 29.5% strikeout rate, which is pretty putrid. But I can’t bring to mind any single specific one of those strikeouts. On the other hand, I can easily remember numerous times that Bryce Harper has homered against Washington. Because those home runs are so handily available in our memories, they feel like a far more frequent event than they actually have been.

Belief Bias

Belief bias is the tendency... to accept believable conclusions

In other words, people are more likely to believe something when it feels like it should be true. It makes a lot of sense that Bryce Harper would bring his A-game against the Nationals. He’s probably upset that the organization that drafted him didn’t offer him a better contract when he was a free agent, and he’s surely upset that they won a World Series without him. It also probably bothers him that many of the Washington fans seem to blame him for leaving the team, and yet they simultaneously deride him as overrated. He has every reason to want to prove that he’s doing better now without them.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias [is] the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.

Once a person has formed a belief, confirmation bias makes it very difficult to change that belief. It was easy for the Phillies fanbase to form the belief that Bryce Harper would dominate against Washington, because it seems so believable. It’s also easy for Phillies fans to confirm that belief, because Bryce Harper is a really, really good baseball player. He may not be better than normal against the Nationals, but he still plays like an All-Star against them, because he is an All-Star. Therefore, it’s not hard to find information that confirms the belief that he hits really well against the Nationals.

Thanks to that Psych 100 lesson, it’s quite clear why Phillies fans would believe that Bryce Harper performs better against his former team. As of right now, however, he’s yet to actually do so.

Homework

Bryce Harper has recorded at least 50 plate appearances against 20 different teams. Which of those teams does he have the highest OPS against? (Hint: It’s obviously not the Nationals.) What about the lowest? (Again, it’s obviously not the Nationals.)

If I see the correct answers in the comments section before the game starts this afternoon, Bryce Harper will hit a home run. (He promised me!)