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Bryce Harper’s slump might not have an easy fix

Over the past 30 days, Bryce Harper’s .188 average ranks him 177th among 187 batters. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
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What’s wrong with Bryce Harper? That’s the question on everyone’s mind in the nation’s capital.

Over the past 30 days, Harper’s .188 average ranks him 177th among the 187 batters with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. In July, he is creating runs at a rate that is 40 percent lower than average after accounting for league and park effects (60 wRC+), after posting well above-average marks for the prior three months. Every hitter goes through a rough patch, but what we are seeing with Harper encompasses the mental and physical. It could get even more daunting if pitchers decide to feed him a steady diet of off-speed and breaking pitches.

Bryce Harper understands his slump better than anyone. And he’s determined to fix it.

The good news is Harper has been extremely unlucky on the balls he has put in play. During the first half of the season his BABIP was .252 and has since dropped to .103 in the second half. The league average is closer to .300, making it highly unlikely this slump will continue for the remainder of the season.

But that doesn’t mean Harper can continue to do what he is doing and hope for progression to the mean. For example, his average velocity has been on the downturn since the beginning of the season, going from 92.8 mph on average to 86.9 mph in July, and his launch angle has also changed, contributing to his .188 average over the last 22 games.

Curveballs are an issue. Harper hasn’t always struggled against this pitch — he hit .291 with .527 slugging against it in 2015 — but in June his exit velocity-launch angle combination was 95.1 mph and 2.2 degrees, which averages to a .477 average this season with line-drive singles and doubles down the line. In July is it 80.2 mph and 36.2 degrees, which indicates Harper is getting under the ball, sapping him of his power and exchanging hard-hit balls for easy outs.

Hitting an opposing pitcher’s slider has also been troublesome. Harper’s average velocity (77.8 mph) and launch angle (6.1 degrees) against the pitch in July is significantly lower than what they were in June (83.7 mph and 22 degrees). Hitters average a .395 average with the latter and .233 with the former, so this is just another reason why Harper isn’t playing at the MVP-caliber level we were expecting at this point in the season.

It’s worth noting that small changes in launch angle can have huge repercussions on a hitter’s power stroke. For example, if we hold exit velocity constant at 100 mph, a ball hit with a 24 degree launch angle would result in a home run every 3.4 at-bats. If that angle drops to 21 degrees, it becomes one home run for every 25.3 at-bats. And those three degrees could be the result of hitting the ball a fraction of a inch different than the swing before.

Unfortunately, a low batting average isn’t the only thing Harper and the Nationals need to deal with. The side effect of poor hitting is frustration, and Harper’s 23.9 percent strikeout rate since the all-star break is alarming, and significantly higher than the 15.8 percent he posted in the first half, with most of his problems beginning towards the end of June.

Harper has seen a large increase in his whiffs per swing on off-speed pitches, spiking from 13.6 percent in April to 33.3 percent in July, and has prone to chasing these pitches in the dirt all season long.

This is similar to what Giancarlo Stanton went through in May and June, when his average dipped to .233 by the all-star break. According to research by Dayn Perry of CBS Sports, Stanton was seeing an increased percentage of sliders, and struggled to make contact on the pitch:

He’s particularly struggling on making contact off the inside corner. That may be related to his facing all those right-handers, as pitchers of the same hand can of course bust you inside without having their pitches cross the heart of the plate. Maybe it’s a slowing bat. Maybe it’s Stanton trying to cheat away in anticipation of the slider. Maybe he’s not healthy. Whatever the reasons, it’s a real thing he’s dealing with right now.

Stanton eventually lowered his overall strikeout rate from 33.3 percent before the all-star break to 21.1 percent after, with a corresponding increase in his OPS (.823 to .917).

So perhaps this is a chicken-and-egg dilemma, where Harper needs to improve his performance so he can cut down on his strikeouts, which is causing his performance to suffer, which is causing more strikeouts, which is….you get the point.

In other words, Harper’s swing and discipline at the plate is all messed up, and it is going to take changes in both his mental and physical approach to get him back on track.