Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and umpire Ron Kulpa watch a flyball go foul. (Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports)

It’s early, but it looks like pitchers don’t want to give Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper anything to hit. Heading into Tuesday night’s games, the 25-year-old former MVP has seen just 37.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone, his lowest rate since 2013, his second year in the major leagues. Harper also isn’t prone to chase these pitches, offering a swing less than 22 percent of the time. The benefits of his approach are twofold: He waits for a pitch he likes so he can crush it, or he gets a free pass to first base.

Harper is slugging .919 on pitches in the strike zone, the third-highest in the majors among players with at least as many at-bats, and was even able to hit a 96-mph, four-seam fastball in the zone more than 400 feet into the stands — despite breaking his bat in two.

Harper is also drawing a walk in 27 percent of his plate appearances which, if sustained, would match the third-highest rate in MLB history, second only to Barry Bonds’s 2002 and 2004 seasons.


What makes Harper’s feat more interesting is that pitchers threw more than 41 percent of pitches to Bonds in the strike zone over those seasons, perhaps out of fear of who was batting behind him in the order. In Bonds’s best walk rate years, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jeff Kent and Benito Santiago were the most frequent hitters behind him in the lineup, and each ended the season as league-average sluggers or better. Alfonzo’s .757 OPS in 2004, for example, was just 5 percent lower than the league average after accounting for external factors like ballparks.(95 OPS+). Kent’s .933 OPS in 2002 was 47 percent above average (147 OPS+).

This season, Harper isn’t getting much protection from Ryan Zimmerman, whose .390 OPS is well below average (7 OPS+). It’s no wonder pitchers don’t mind avoiding the strike zone against Harper — there is barely a penalty for doing so. Zimmerman is also 2 for 18 (.111) with five strikeouts with Harper on base.

    Most frequent batter behind him
Player Walk rate Protection OPS OPS+
Barry Bonds (2004) 38% Edgardo Alfonzo .757 95
Barry Bonds (2002) 32% Jeff Kent .933 147
Bryce Harper (2018) 27% Ryan Zimmerman .390 7
Barry Bonds (2003) 27% Benito Santiago .753 96
Barry Bonds (2001) 27% Jeff Kent .877 131

To be fair, Zimmerman deserves a better fate. Based on his exit velocities and launch angles, he should have an above-average slugging percentage (.442) instead of his actual rate of .204. Plus, of the four times he has made contact on the sweet spot of the bat, also known as a barrel, just one, a home run off Atlanta’s Julio Teheran on April 3, wasn’t an out, despite each at-bat having a 73 percent chance or better of becoming a hit. Zimmerman is one of just 19 batters this season who has made an out on an at-bat that historically has had at least a 94 percent chance of being a hit.

Date Pitcher Result Exit velocity (mph) Launch angle (degrees) Hit
probability
4/3/2018 Julio Teheran Home run 108 23 99%
4/8/2018 AJ Ramos Line-drive out to center 109 17 76%
4/9/2018 Julio Teheran Flyball out to right 104 24 94%
4/12/2018 Chad Bettis Line-drive out to center 110 14 73%

Zimmerman isn’t the only batter struggling to make something happen at the plate with Harper on base. The team is 13 for 62 (.210) in these situations, yet we would expect it to bat .356 based on each hit’s launch angle and exit velocity. And that’s the good news: Washington is batting way below expectations, with or without Harper on base. The team’s batting average on balls in play with men on base is .294 in a league in which the average is .300. Its BABIP with runners in scoring position is even lower at .262 — only the San Francisco Giants (.205) and Colorado Rockies (.260) are worse among NL teams. The league average is .297.

Taking this a step further, the Nationals are one of the most unlucky teams in baseball, having won two fewer games than expected based on when and where they produce their hits and walks. Their division rival New York Mets, by contrast, have won four more games than expected due to above-average luck. Is that enough to narrow the five-game gap between the clubs in the NL East? It might be, and at the least it could give solace to the Nationals and their fans that there should be better — and more productive — days ahead.

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