Rhys Hoskins is convinced that the Home Run Derby helped him. Bryce Harper, not so much.
It’s been exactly one month since Harper staged an epic comeback on his home turf to defeat Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber in the final round of the Derby in D.C. Schwarber’s opponent in the semis was Hoskins, who’s already gone on record as saying the Derby jump-started his second half.
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“Hundred percent,” the Phillies slugger said late last month. “I think it kind of forced me to be aggressive to the pull side. I haven’t done that very well this year. For whatever reason, I’ve been a little more passive on the inner half of the plate. In the Derby, I was able to pull balls more true and keep the ball a lot straighter instead of hooking the ball. It seems to be carrying over.”
Hoskins has an OPS of 1.001 since the All-Star break, nearly 200 points higher than in the first half. After hitting 14 home runs in 86 games prior to the break, he already has nine homers in just 24 games since.
As for Harper, heading into the All-Star break there were whispers that maybe the Derby was just what the doctor ordered — that contrary to the recent trend of superstars skipping the contest for fear of ruining their swings and/or injuring themselves, the most well-known National might actually benefit from it. After all, he had nowhere to go but up. Following a first half in which he hit an anemic .214 and struck out more than 100 times, the Derby might actually snap him out of his funk. Or so went the thinking.
The way the Home Run Derby played out, with Harper captivating the capital en route to hoisting the hardware, only added fuel to the fire. The way Harper came out of the break hasn’t done anything to douse those flames.
Since the Midsummer Classic, the former MVP is hitting .337. His slugging percentage is more than 200 points higher than it was before the break. His 1.115 OPS is up nearly 300 points. His swing-and-miss rate is down (from 33 percent to 30 percent), as is his chase rate (28 to 22). Perhaps most important, he’s using the whole field.
“Better approach,” says one National League scout who’s watched Harper recently. “He’s staying on the ball, using the opposite field, not pulling everything.”
The numbers back up the scout’s take. During the first half of the season, 24 percent of Harper’s batted balls went to the opposite field. Since the break, that number has spiked to 35 percent, a telltale sign he’s feeling more comfortable at the plate.
“When he’s really good,” said Washington manager Dave Martinez earlier this month, “that’s what he does.”
That’s not to say the Home Run Derby is necessarily responsible for Harper trending in the right direction.
“[He’s] just a really good hitter,” said Martinez. “Throughout the course of the year, he was eventually going to come out of it, and he’s starting to do so now.”
In other words, Derby or no Derby, Harper was bound for some regression to the mean. Nowhere is that regression more evident than in his batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
Prior to the break, Harper’s .226 BABIP was not only well below the league average (typically around .300), it was the second lowest in the National League. Although a low BABIP can sometimes be a function of “bad hitting” (i.e. not hitting the ball with authority), it’s more frequently a byproduct of bad luck (i.e. not hitting the ball in the right place). In Harper’s case, it was the latter: His 41.1 percent hard-hit rate in the first half was higher than his best mark for any full season (40.9 percent during his MVP year in 2015). Even though his hard-hit rate has stayed about the same in the second half, his BABIP has gone up. Way up. In fact, Harper’s .429 BABIP since the break is the third highest in the NL, a sign that perhaps his luck has started to turn (and/or that he’s not pulling the ball into the shift as frequently). As for whether the Derby had anything to do with it, well, that depends on whom you ask.
Although Harper himself says his mechanics haven’t changed at all since the Derby and there hasn’t been any kind of carryover effect, not everyone around him agrees.
“What I do know is that he fed off the fans that day … and I think right now he’s playing with a lot of heart,” said Martinez. “He appreciates what the fans did to him that day, so I think that has a little bit to do with it.”
That might not be the only factor in play.
As encouraging as Harper’s performance since the Derby has been, it’s been even more so since the trade deadline. Leading up to the July 31 cutoff, Harper became the subject of increasing trade speculation as rumors swirled that the disappointing Nationals might become sellers instead of buyers. The front office’s decision to hold on to its star right-fielder and not break up the band seemed to energize Harper. Just hours after the trade deadline passed, he went out and collected a pair of doubles in a 25-4 rout over the Mets. That began a string of seven games in which Harper recorded multiple hits six times. In related news, Washington won six of seven over that stretch, prompting many to wonder whether Harper and the Nats had finally turned their season around.
Since then, though, the Nationals have dropped seven of nine, including a pair of gut-wrenching walk-off losses to the Cubs and Cardinals on back-to-back nights. It’s a crippling skid that’s dropped Washington’s playoff odds to 17 percent, down from the mid-40s a week ago and all the way down from 59 percent at the All-Star break.
There’s no denying the Nationals have some serious issues that need fixing if they’re going to reach the postseason for the fifth time in seven years. The bullpen needs closer Sean Doolittle and setup men Kelvin Herrera and Ryan Madson to get healthy, and fast. The rotation needs Stephen Strasburg to do the same, and faster. And it wouldn’t hurt if the Braves and Phillies, two upstart clubs that have definitively outplayed Washington thus far, finally started showing some cracks in their youthful facade.
The good news is that exactly one month after the Home Run Derby, it appears Bryce Harper is no longer one of the things that needs fixing.