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Bryce Harper’s mastery of the strike zone has him back to MVP form

Bryce Harper is batting .418 with eight home runs in Washington’s first 22 games. (Brad Penner/USA Today)

Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is dialed in this season. To say the least.

The 24-year-old slugger is batting .418 with eight home runs in Washington’s first 22 games, creating runs at a rate that is almost two-and-a-half times the league average after adjusting for park and league effects (246 wRC+). He has 16 extra-base hits (.405 ISO) with an equal amount home runs (four) hit to straightaway center field as they are pulled for power. His latest home run, a three-run shot as part of an 11-run seventh inning against the Colorado Rockies on Thursday night, had a true distance of 441 feet, the second-longest home run hit this season.

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We’ve seen Harper hit for power and average before, but this season his mastery of the strike zone is almost unparalleled.

Harper is walking more often (20 percent) than he is striking out (15 percent) and has been swinging on a career low 40 percent of pitches while making contact with more than 92 percent of balls in the zone. He’s obviously got a long way to go this season, but the unanimous 2015 NL Most Valuable Player is on track to join Barry Bonds (2002 to 2004) and Brian Giles (2002) as the only batters this century to swing at no more than 40 percent of pitches with a zone-contact rate in excess of 90 percent.

In a major change, Harper is laying off pitches near the outer part of the plate, preferring to wait until a pitcher makes a mistake in his wheelhouse rather than chase a pitch he can’t do much with. He swung at more than 11 percent of pitches on the outer part of the strike zone in 2015 and 2016; this season, he is only taking a swing on 8.8 percent.

This has led to more than 47 percent of his plate appearances with him ahead of the count, three percentage points higher than his 2015 MVP season (44 percent). And he is doing more damage, producing a 1.554 OPS in these at-bats compared to 1.488 in 2015 and 1.107 in 2016.

On pitches that Harper swings at within the strike zone, he is whiffing a mere 2.4 percent of the time, seventh-lowest among major league hitters seeing at least 300 pitches this season. He’s swung and missed at just one fastball down the middle, with five home runs, two doubles and two singles the other 13 times.

Improvement like this should easily put Harper back in the MVP race.

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Since 2006, the first year baseball instituted its leaguewide drug policy, eight batters have produced similar plate discipline to Harper during March and April (20 walks, 14 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances) while posting an OPS that was at least two times higher than the league average. Five — Albert Pujols (2006 and 2008), Justin Morneau (2010), Troy Tulowitzki (2014) and Miguel Cabrera (2011) — ended the regular season with an OPS in excess of 1.033, several ticks off Harper’s major league leading 1.109 OPS during his 2015 MVP campaign but high enough to lead the majors in three of the past five seasons.