Coming into the 2017 season, one of the biggest questions marks throughout baseball involved how Bryce Harper would rebound from his dreadful 2016 campaign.
Coming into 2016, Harper was fresh off the best season of his career, batting .330 with 42 homeruns and 99 RBIs, earning him his 1st NL Most Valuable Player award. However as dominant as Harper was in 2015, he was equally inconsistent in 2016, batting only .245 with 24 homeruns, along with a 207 point drop in slugging percentage. While we may never know what role (if any) injuries played in Harper’s season, the one thing that was for certain, was that Harper was a mechanical mess (relatively speaking) – something he vowed to change coming into this season.
Entering today, Harper was batting .338 with 24 homeruns and 75 RBI’s through only 88 games, making him the clear front-runner for the NL MVP. But the reason for today’s post isn’t to applaud Harper’s success to date, instead it’s to acknowledge and illustrate Harper’s will and desire to keep growing and developing as a hitter regardless as to his previous success. Hitting is an art that can never be mastered and having the opportunity to watch someone who is the best in the world at what he does, continue to find ways to get better, is something that all baseball fans, regardless of allegiances, should acknowledge and enjoy.
I’ll stipulate that while I’m a big fan of Harper as a player, I don’t watch his at-bats religiously, so it is entirely possible that the mechanical adjustments I noticed in the game yesterday, have been around since the All-Star break, and I just haven’t seen them.
In getting to it, here are two of Harper’s at-bats from last night’s game against the Diamondbacks. The first two videos are from a 1st inning solo homerun that travelled roughly 470’ to right field, and the third was a double that short-hopped the left field wall.
In order to truly get the full effect of how far Harper has progressed over the past season, it’s imperative to compare his inconsistent 2016 swing (left) to last night. If we stop both swings at the conclusion of the “load” (movement back towards to catcher) phase, we see two significant differences – the absence of a leg kick in the bottom half, and hand height in the top half. In 2016 (and 2017 up until I saw him last night), Harper utilized a big leg-kick to generate momentum and served as the focal point of his load. Last night, Harper eliminated the leg-kick all together, and in a similar manner as teammate Daniel Murphy, kept his front foot in contract with the ground using a simple weight-shift back to serve as his load. As a byproduct, you get an excellent idea of how much more balanced and level Harper’s setup is as indicated by his hip level.
If we skip ahead in the swing to the “heel plant” phase, we again see how much of a better hitting position Harper is in this season. In 2016, the leg-kick has led to an elongated stride, leaving Harper susceptible to balance issues as the swing progresses. Last night, Harper exhibited picture-perfect balance as evidenced by head being directly over his belt-line and even between his knees and feet.
It’s also important to note what has happened to Harper’s hands from the “load” portion of the swing, to the heel plant. Last season, Harper’s hands started at about arm-pit height and then raised to about the height of his ears by the time his heel plants, suggesting an inefficiency in his hand path to the ball. For the most part, the actual hand position when the swing begins to come forward (red box) is relatively similar between last year and this year – the difference is how efficiently the hands get to the right place. With the pinpoint location and high velocity pitchers possess, any added length in a swing can be exposed, something that I think affected Harper last season. This season, however, Harper’s hands are at a nearly identical place from his load through his heel plant, suggesting that there’s zero wasted movement or added-length to his pre-swing process. When you combine that with outstanding balance and a strong base, Harper is allowing his talent and unique skill set to take over while the ball enters the hitting zone.
And as if that wasn’t enough, let’s take a quick look at what the simplification of Harper’s pre-swing movement has done to his head and ability to see the ball. From the load phase all the way through the point of contact, Harper’s head has moved significantly less on both a horizontal plane and vertical plane in 2017. For those who have yet to see the video ESPN did with Robinson Cano on the importance of head movement, make sure to watch it here…
Here’s a video clip of the head movement (highlighted by circles), however the swings have been flipped – 2017 is on the left and 2016 is on the right.
As I said previously, Harper entered the All-Star break as the leading candidate for NL MVP. If he didn’t make another swing adjustment for the rest of the season, I don’t think anybody would question that decision. But because of his reluctance to settle, Harper has been able to incorporate yet another swing adjustment that will undoubtedly make him more consistent – something that is hard to imagine given his performance to date.
If we take one last look at both Harper’s at-bats from last night, you see the consistency on full display. The photo on the left was a breaking ball that Harper his for the homerun. The photo on the right was the double Harper hit against a fastball on the outer half of the plate. There could not be two more-different pitches for a pitcher to throw, but based on his balance and foundation at the plate, Harper is in a position to hit any pitch in any location HARD.
For those Giants fans who have followed Straight 108, they know that tracking in-season hitting adjustments makes up a significant part of what I do.
While I was watching Harper’s video from 2016, I couldn’t help but notice some strong similarities with him and Brandon Belt (this season), one of many Giants whose seasons (and career) have been mired in inconsistency. Being that Belt is in the midst of such tough stretch, I thought it’d be interesting to see what, if anything, Belt could take from Harper’s transformation to help him become a more consistent hitter going forward.
It we take a look at Belt this year and Harper in 2016, the similarities are pretty stunning. Both have an elongated leg kick that has forced an uphill tilt in their hip-level. Additionally, both have their hands about arm-pit height and extended further back over their back foot, creating a disconnect between upper and lower half.
Upon their stride and heel plant, both have maintained the uphill hip-level, and both have raised their hands in the process, thus creating the steep path needed to get back into the hitting zone.
If we now compare Belt to the significant adjustment that Harper has made this season, we see what a drastic difference it is, despite the two hitters possessing several of the same mechanics just a season ago.
What separates hitters like Harper from guys like Belt has very little to do about the swing itself. Both swings (not foundation/balance/timing) are mechanically sound and both possess incredible strength and hand-eye coordination. The difference, however, is the manner and consistency in which both players put themselves into a body-position that allows them to utilize their strength. Harper’s addition by subtraction approach has paid huge dividends already for the MVP candidate, and I can’t help but wonder what adjustments, if any, Belt incorporates from here on out.