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Philadelphia Phillies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Bryce Harper is swinging more than ever — and it’s working

Phillies superstar Bryce Harper has significantly changed his approach at the plate this year. So far, it’s looking good.

Bryce Harper’s walk rate probably isn’t top of mind for you right now.

Harper has been one of the best hitters in baseball this year, and he’s been especially productive since the start of May. On the season, he leads National League hitters in runs scored, home runs, doubles, extra-base hits, total bases, and slugging percentage.

Harper has even been a serious threat on the basepaths — his six stolen bases are just two behind league leaders Harrison Bader and Tommy Edman.

In other words, Bryce Harper is still producing, despite career-low walk numbers. He’s still getting on base at a rate 15% higher than league average, and no one in baseball has scored more often than he has. He’s doing his job, even if he’s going about it in a new way. His surprisingly low walk rate has not been a problem.

If you are looking for a problem, the thing to focus on is Harper’s UCL tear. It clearly hasn’t affected his swing, but if it gets worse and requires surgery, the MV3 could be out of commission for a prolonged period of time.

All that to say, Bryce Harper’s walk rate is far from a major concern. Harper is playing at an elite level, and if you need to be concerned about something, it should be his UCL.

Nevertheless, Harper’s walk rate is still worth talking about. It’s unusual to see a ten-year MLB veteran in the prime of his career make such a significant change to his approach, especially coming off an MVP-winning season.

Bryce Harper Is Walking at Half His Career Rate

Harper’s 7.5% walk rate this season is just half of his career average. It is the lowest walk rate he’s put up in any 34-game span since his injury-shortened 2014 season.

However, he did have a 34-game stretch with a 7.6% BB% in June/July 2021, and another one with an 8.1% BB% in May/June 2018. This isn’t entirely unprecedented for Harper, but it remains highly unusual.

So what has Harper been doing differently this year? His strikeout rate is in line with his career average, so he must be putting the ball in play much more often than he usually does.

Indeed, that has been the case. Harper is swinging a lot more than he has in past years. He has swung at 55.5% of pitches this year, a career high. The only other season in which he had a swing rate higher than 50% was 2014. The last time he had a swing rate this high in any 34-game span was April 2015, during his first MVP season.

His career swing rate is 47.2%, which is right around league average. A 55.5% swing rate means he has already swung at 45 more pitches than he normally would. If he keeps this up for a full season, he’d be swinging at 200-250 more pitches than before.

Harper’s contact rate, on the other hand, is relatively close to his career average. So, since he has swung at about 45 more pitches than usual, and because he is making contact at a 71.5% rate, Bryce Harper has already made contact with about 32 more pitches than he might have in the past.

Harper is sacrificing walks for balls in play this year. And as all can clearly see, it’s been a successful tactic so far.

Harper’s Approach Is Working

MLB: MAY 14 Phillies at Dodgers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Bryce Harper is hitting .305 with his highest OPS+ and wRC+ since 2015. Despite the low walk rate, he has been every bit as productive as he was last season.

His .337 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is a little bit higher than his career average of .320, which suggests his batting average might not stay quite this high. However, Harper has maintained a BABIP that high over a full season before. His BABIP last year was .359, and he is hitting the ball just as well this year. His Statcast expected batting average (xBA) and slugging percentage (xSLG) are even higher than they were last season, and his 51.5% HardHit rate is the best of his career.

As long as Harper continues to hit the ball this well, he is more than capable of maintaining a .337 BABIP long term. His sprint speed is well above average, and that’s another helpful factor in maintaining a high BABIP.

Why Is Harper Swinging More Often?

Bryce Harper’s new approach at the plate is working, so I’m not here to question his decision making. Still, I can’t help but wonder why he changed his approach after such a strong 2021 season.

One rational explanation would be that Harper is trying to put more balls in play this year because he’s hitting as part of a stronger lineup. When a hitter comes up to bat with runners on base, his goal should be to help those runners score. It’s hard to drive runners in with a walk.

If Bryce Harper were indeed coming up to bat with runners on base more often, it would make perfect sense to put the ball in play more often.

The thing is, Harper actually hasn’t been coming up to bat with runners on or with runners in scoring position any more often than he was before.

Bryce Harper’s Percentage of Plate Appearances with Runners On and RISP

Season PA w/ Runners On PA w/RISP
Season PA w/ Runners On PA w/RISP
2022 44% 22%
2021 40% 21%
2020 49% 28%
2019 44% 23%

So Harper has not had any more runners to drive in than usual. With that in mind, and with Nick Castellanos hitting behind Harper all year, you might think Bryce would actually be more inclined to walk this season. There’s less pressure on him to be the major run producer in the lineup, and if he gets on base, he can count on Castellanos to drive him in.

Yet, from the end of the Phillies first home stand this season until their West Coast road trip last week, Harper walked just 3 times in 22 games. The Phillies went 9-13 in that time. In many of those games, the Phillies just needed baserunners, but Harper posted a meager on-base percentage of .290.

Harper was still a productive hitter in that span, posting an .831 OPS and 128 wRC+. His power made up for his low OBP, and I certainly don’t mean to blame him for the Phillies’ struggles in that stretch.

All I am trying to say is that I do not think Harper’s free swinging at the plate has anything to do with the newly fortified Phillies lineup. If that were the case, we would expect to see him walk more often when it is in the team’s best interest.

Instead, I think the explanation for Harper’s new approach is simpler than that: he tried it, and it’s been working.

Harper seems to have decided he can be a more productive player by taking fewer pitches and swinging more often. As of right now, he’s achieved the desired results. He’s off to an incredible start, and his expected stats suggest he might get even better.

It’s still too early in the season to know if this approach will last, but enough time has passed to identify a clear pattern. Bryce Harper is swinging like never before, and so far, it’s working.

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