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The realization came to Rick Schu this spring as he sat in front of a screen, collecting baseball swings. All winter, Schu, the Washington Nationals’ hitting coordinator, had been watching “Baseball” by Ken Burns, a Christmas gift from his wife. He burned clips from the DVD and compiled classic swings — Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth. As he watched Ruth, Schu paused the video and asked himself a question: Didn’t Bryce Harper have a swing just like that?
Schu scanned through video and found film of Harper hitting. He arranged clips of Harper and Ruth side-by-side on the monitor and stopped at the moment each hitter’s bat connected with a pitch. In each still picture, he saw a stiff front leg, an uncoiling torso and a back foot lifting off the ground. “Wow,” he thought. “That’s identical.”
“They’ve got that exact same swing at contact point,” Schu said later.
Harper, at 20 years old, has grasped every skill necessary on a Major League Baseball diamond. He tracked down flyballs in center field as a 19-year-old rookie at an elite rate. His throws from left rocket to the infield as if propelled by jet fuel. He runs the bases with such aggression his helmet routinely flies off. At the center of Harper’s soaring talent, though, is an exquisitely ferocious swing that has made him one of the best hitters in the world before his 21st birthday. He can hit for power and average: Through Thursday his ten homers rank third (tie), and his .302 batting average ranks 35th. He hits all pitch types with proficiency — he performs above the league average against fastballs, cutters, curveballs, sliders, change-ups and splitters. If it can be thrown, his swing can hit it.
“The full thing is God-given,” Harper said. “I don’t know how I got my swing or what I did. I know I worked every single day. I know I did as much as I could with my dad. But I never really looked at anything mechanical. There was nothing really like, ‘Oh, put your hands here.’ It was, ‘Where are you comfortable? You’re comfortable here, hit from there.’ ”
Harper’s swing inspires uncommon praise and comparisons. Schu, a former major leaguer, watched him and saw Ruth. General Manager Mike Rizzo sees an all-time great from a different sport.
“What makes him special is the amount of bat speed he can generate, and the amount of rotation that he has, and still stay completely balanced,” Rizzo said. “For me, that’s what separates him. He can generate that club head speed and stay as balanced as he does. I compare it a lot to Tiger Woods’s swing with a golf club.”
How Harper is pitched
The way pitchers throw to Harper indicates his swing isn’t typical. Conventional wisdom is to avoid throwing low — particularly low fastballs — to lefties, because their sweeping swings can pull the ball into right field. But Harper’s choppy swing lets him hit everywhere, so pitchers don’t avoid the outside corner.
Where pitchers try to attack Harper
Number of pitches, 2012-13:
Pitches shown from catcher’s point-of-view
When he swings, Harper makes contact with…
Contacted pitches, 2012-13:
‘Millions’ of swings
The origin story of Harper’s swing starts not in a lab, like some comic book hero’s superpower, but rather in his family’s garage. When his father returned home from his job as an ironworker, Harper begged him to pitch to him or feed him soft toss. Ron Harper erected a net in the garage.
Bryce Harper could not fathom how many soft tosses or batting practice pitches his father threw him. “Millions,” he said. “Absolutely millions.” When he played football in high school, he would sneak into the batting cage between the end of class and practice, taking swings while wearing fully padded football pants.
Ron coached his son with small reminders and large bullet points. He would tell Bryce to focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field or offer advice like, “Hands inside!” But he never bogged down Bryce with detailed instruction.
“I’ve always been a big believer in, there’s times when you got to let people go and let them figure it out themselves,” Ron Harper said.
Bryce recalled a critical moment in the development of his swing that occurred when he was 7 years old. He was playing in a national tournament for players 10 and younger.
“This kid throws me an inside fastball, and I hit it nine miles to right. But foul,” he said. “And they ended up just” — Harper snapped his fingers three times — “everything off-speed, off-speed, off-speed. I never saw that. I was like, ‘Holy crap. This is a new picture.’ The whole tournament, they were just like, ‘Don’t throw that kid a fastball inside, because he’ll hit it a mile.’ That was when I was like, ‘Well, I need to start trying to hit the ball the other way and work on some things.’ ”
With his father, taking batting practice at local fields or in the garage, Harper programmed himself to hit off-speed pitches and pitches on the outer edge to the opposite field. He was only 7 or 8, but the idea stuck in his head. He did not focus on mechanics to achieve his goal; the proper mechanics arose from his mission, like learning a language through immersion.
Harper blazed past his peers, and then past kids a few years older. When the Nationals signed Harper he was, at 17 years old, a fully matured hitter. The first place they sent him was the Florida Instructional League, where Schu oversaw newly professional hitters.
“Working with Bryce,” Schu said, “was making sure he had bats and pine tar.”
But Harper has made modifications. Nationals officials say he actually was swinging harder when they drafted him — so hard, Schu said, his head would move as much as two feet during a swing. The “head travel” prevented Harper from recognizing pitches and led to misses. Schu expressed the need for Harper to stay within himself and keep his head still.
Harper will save his biggest swings for the proper moments, adjusting for the situation. If he is facing a pitcher with high velocity or falls into a two-strike count, Harper removes some of the aggression from his swing.
“He knows how to shorten up and get the barrel to the ball,” Schu said. “And then he’ll pick some counts where he’ll let the big dog eat.”
Harper starts every swing in the same stance, his feet slightly open and his hands cocked behind his ear. When he was younger, in order to keep his hands back for off-speed pitches, Harper raised his hands literally as high as he could above his head. As he aged, he gradually lowered his hands.
Harper contorts his neck more than most hitters in order to look at the pitcher with both eyes. He discovered he is left-eye dominant, and so he wants his left eye to be in front of his right eye. The extra turn in his head allows him to recognize pitches and see the ball earlier.
As Harper begins his swing, he starts by picking up his front foot and turning his ankle in, loading weight backward and starting to transfer energy from the ground to his hands. The key to his power comes in synchronized movements. As he twists his upper body, Harper separates his pelvis from his hips — if viewed from above, his shoulders and hips would form an ‘X.’
“His torque in his hips, all that stuff, everything is always together,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “He utilizes his entire body to execute his swing. It’s athleticism, strength, coordination — obviously, years of training.”
As he begins to bring his hands forward, Harper stiffens his right leg to create what Schu called “leverage” — using his front leg as a fulcrum to move force from his lower body to his upper body. All these actions happen simultaneously, calibrated to a split-second.
“It’s complicated because you’ve got different muscle groups that are kicking in at different times,” said University of Illinois physics professor Alan Nathan, an expert in the science of baseball. “You don’t want one muscle group to be fighting against one muscle group, or you lose the energy.”
Most left-handed hitters, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto said, swing with a sweeping path that creates hooking, topspin hits. It allows them to clobber pitches thrown on the inside of the plate and low, but leaves them vulnerable to outside pitches. Harper uses a “more of a flat, tomahawk, hammer path,” Votto said, which allows him to hit line drives to every part of the field.
“To me, when I watch him, I don’t see a standard left-handed path,” Votto said. “I just see a beautiful, flat, powerful, quick stroke through the middle of the zone.”
Harper uses the non-traditional swing as a remnant of that foul ball he hit as a 7-year-old. He never stopped wanting to hit opposite-field line drives. He studies the way Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley keeps his front shoulder closed. Before one game in early April, a magazine rested inside Harper’s locker, opened to an in-depth article in which Votto explained his approach to hitting.
“The guys who hit .300, .330 really hit the ball to the left side,” Harper said. “I think that was the thing my dad taught me when I was younger. If you hit the ball to the left side, you’re going to go far in the game.”
‘Bam Bam’ versus ‘The Kid’
Different swings, different pitches
Pitchers tend to try to keep the ball low and away from Harper’s unorthodox chop of a swing, in contrast to the chest-high strikes they tended to throw to Ken Griffey Jr., a left-hander with a more traditional, sweeping swing.
Pitches to Harper: 2012-13
These pitches form a lower, broader distribution.
Pitches to Griffey Jr.: 2007-10
Griffey got more pitches chest-high, and saw more pitches in the zone.
Power meets consistency
In the moments Harper unleashes his most vicious hacks, one of the most noticeable traits of his swing arises — the one that sent Schu rummaging through his DVD collection for a clip of Ruth. As Harper makes contact, his left foot will rise off the ground, leaving all of his weight on his front half.
The action is only a byproduct of transferring his weight from his back foot to front side. As he keeps his front leg straight and his right knee snaps into place, the jolting force of his weight moving forward has to go somewhere. If not for his back foot popping up, it could lead to tearing in his back hip.
“It’s so much power releasing from the front side,” Harper said. “I lock my front side as much as I can, so it stays straight. When it stays straight, that’s when my swing is the best. When I get out there” — he leaned forward with his knee bent — “my swing is terrible.”
Glenn Fleisig, an expert in the field of biomechanics, said the majority of hitters he’s studied transferred 90 percent of their weight to their front foot and kept 10 percent on their back leg at contact. Harper, of course, would move 100 percent of his weight forward at contact when his back leg lifts. That, Fleisig said, would enable him to generate a ground rotational force equal to 150 percent of his body weight.
“He would probably have towards the peak of his value,” Fleisig said. “It’s not about maximizing your ground force. It’s about how much you pass up through your system.”
Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche marveled at how much bat speed Harper can generate and still make consistent contact. He attributed Harper’s ability to his knack for keeping the barrel of his bat in the hitting zone longer than other batters.
LaRoche held his hands roughly eight inches apart to show how much space most hitters cover with their barrel in the zone. Then he widened them to about 1 1/2 feet to demonstrate how long Harper, and others, can keep their bat in the zone.
“Those guys that swing with that much force — literally max-effort, every swing — tend to be swing-and-miss guys,” LaRoche said. “To be able to do it with that kind of torque, and to have the hand-eye coordination to square up balls and to foul off tough pitches, that’s what separates those guys.”
Harper’s bat speed separates him from other hitters and accounts for his power, but his consistency owes to the concept Nathan referred to as bat quickness. “Speed makes the ball go far,” Nathan said. “Acceleration allows you to make good contact with the ball.”
For now, opposing pitchers treat Harper like one of the biggest threats in the league. Through Thursday’s games, Harper had faced fastballs on 47.2 percent of pitches, fourth lowest in the majors. Pitchers had thrown him a ball out of the strike zone 60.3 percent of the time, lower than just two major leaguers.
“The most impressive thing to me is, he’s 20 years old and a middle-of-the-lineup guy,” Chicago White Sox veteran right-hander Jake Peavy said after Harper went 2 for 3 against him in April. “It’s no different to me getting ready to face Prince Fielder or [Miguel] Cabrera.”
One day at Nationals Park in early April, Ron Harper stood five rows behind the backstop, not far from the third base dugout, watching batting practice. He gazed at the field, eyes fixed on the son who once begged to be thrown pitches in the garage. Pitches came in. The balls sizzled not into a net but through the humid air inside a major league stadium. A ball banged off the back wall of the bullpen in right field.
The next pitch. Bryce Harper stared at the batting practice coach, head cocked to the right. He lifted his right leg. He swung.
“I just love watching him hit,” Ron Harper said. “It never gets old.”
An aggressive approach
Harper says he doesn’t look for -- or prefer -- any specific pitches. Pitchers have succeeded with the change-up. It affects his balance, making him lean over his front leg.