Well we are not even three full weeks into the 2017 season and it seems like we can already declare that Bryce Harper is BACK. Last night Bryce had one of those games where he reminds you of how he became the youngest unanimous MVP in the over 100 year history of Major League Baseball. Bryce went 4-for-4 with two home runs, a double, five RBIs, a walk, and three runs scored as the Nationals beat the piss out of the Braves 14-4. It's been the continuation of a three weak tear for Harper that began in the very first game of the year.
Bryce Harper on Opening Day:
2013: 2 home runs
2015: 1 home run
2016: 1 home run
2017: 1 home run
His incredible month of April continued on Easter Sunday when he came up to bat with two on and two outs with the Nationals trying by one. Bryce then did this:
We know Harper was disappointing last year following his MVP performance in 2015. I'll be the first to admit that Bryce rubs a lot of people the wrong way so everyone wanted to jump onto the bandwagon of this meaning he was a flash in the pan or that he couldn't live up to the hype he had set for himself. But for the millionth time let's take a look at what happened last year:
He began 2016 on a hot streak similar to what he's doing right now. Through his first 15 games he hit .321 with eight home runs and 22 RBIs. If anything he was performing even better than the year prior and he had idiots like me declaring he had won the Trout versus Harper debate. He was so good that the Cubs wanted absolutely nothing to do with him during a four game series in May where they walked him 13 times. Baseball hadn't seem someone get that type of respect since Barry Bonds. And then...nothing. The production just stopped. Harper became a shell of himself and finished the year with a .243 batting average and just 1.6 WAR.
So what happened? Were the haters right? Well if it his start to 2017 is any indication it looks like he was just playing hurt. It came out once during the season and then again this off-season that Bryce was dealing with a shoulder injury suffered mid way through last year, which just so happens to be around when he started struggling. Hmmm. What do shoulder injuries do to a hitter? They affect a hitter's ability to hit the ball hard that's what. So let's look at a stat called soft contact percent, which is exactly what it sounds like. It measures how often a hitter makes soft (weak) contact on a batted ball.
For some perspective, in Harper's MVP season he had a soft contact percent of 11.9 according to FanGraphs. That number rose to 19.8 (!!!) percent in 2016. For his career, including when he played through this shoulder injury, Bryce's soft contact percent is 15.0. So what does that mean? Well for one it likely proves he was playing hurt during the second half of last year. If you want to tell me he regressed a little after 2015, well I can buy that too. His breakout season was so good it would've been tough to repeat it. But what you cannot tell me is that his soft contact percent rose that much for no reason. There was something else going on and the timing of the shoulder injury makes too much sense.
Fast forward to this year. As stated earlier Bryce is off to a scorching hot start. Through 14 games entering Thursday night he is slashing .404/.516/.846 with six home runs and 18 RBIs. His 1.3 WAR according to Baseball-Reference ranks second among position players. Just to make sure everyone is reading that triple slash line correctly, yes, that means Harper has gotten on base over 50% of the time so far. And how should we know he's "back" as opposed to just having a couple of good weeks? His soft contact percent this year is 7.1. Freed of last season's shoulder injury he is making weak contact at a rate even lower than his unanimous MVP winning 2015. It's official, Bryce is back.