PHILADELPHIA — His teammates know the face. Bryce Harper, 30, an 11-year major league veteran, will enter the dugout before a game with a particular kind of countenance, one that the Philadelphia Phillies know is business time. Mouth slack, eyes narrowed, neck straight as a drumstick, Harper’s expression is blank.
“It’s like when he looks at you, he looks through you,” the Phillies outfielder said. Brandon Marsh said. “Because he’s not focused on you. He’s focused on what’s to come.”
What has come, over the past month, as the Phillies have marched from the cusp of a regular-season finale to a World Series championship, is Harper, already one of baseball’s greatest players, in his prime. His majestic first-inning home run in Game 3 Tuesday night, on the first pitch he’d ever seen in a World Series in a Philadelphia uniform, in the first World Series game at Citizens Bank Park in 13 years, started the barrage. five-homer hit that propelled the Phillies to a 7-0 win to give them a two-game lead over the Houston Astros.
It was just the latest feat for Harper, another postseason highlight of his life — or, for that matter, anyone’s life. In 14 playoff games, Harper is hitting .382/.414/.818 with six home runs and 13 RBIs. Of all players with at least 50 plate appearances in a single postseason, Harper’s OPS of 1.232 ranks 11th all-time. “That guy,” Marsh said, “is focused.” Which begs the question: If Harper has so much control in this postseason, what exactly are the Astros doing still throwing at him?
“I don’t know yet,” the Phillies first baseman said. Rhys Hoskins. “I hope they continue.”
The answer is, in fact, difficult to pin down. It’s where the emotional (“Don’t do it!”) intersects with the situational (“Depends!”). It includes the philosophical (pitching selection) and the ability to execute (which many lack). Even when it works (the Astros struck out Harper in his last three at-bats in Game 3), it’s often too late, his opponents have already paid a heavy price.
In other words, pitching to Bryce Harper is a calculated risk, and this postseason has generally ended without a commensurate reward.
Before trying to figure out if throwing around Harper would be the right move, it’s important to understand how teams have approached him thus far.
Harper’s regular season should be split into two: before and after the injury. Before a straight Blake Snell broke Harper’s left thumb on June 25, pitchers threw him fastballs 43.3% of the time, and he blew them away: .333/.423/.635 with seven home runs. Following Harper’s return on August 26 through the end of the season, pitchers threw fastballs 47.8% of the time and neutralized him: .217/.345/.304 with no home runs in 55 plate appearances ending with that launch.
The book on Harper, according to two scouts who did advanced analysis of the Phillies heading to the playoffs, was simple: Hit him with deep, inside fastballs, and he’s in trouble. The teams adhered to the straight-first philosophy. Upstairs and inside was the problem, and Harper’s ability to punish misplaced shots, a huge reason the Phillies got to the World Series, has continued to make the difference.
In the first three rounds, Harper faced fastballs 48.5% of the time and went 10-for-18 with three doubles, three home runs and a 1.222 slugging percentage. Even better were his numbers against on-base fastballs: a .636 batting average and a 1.364 slug. And worst of all for pitchers were the numbers with one man at first base, when teams are less likely to throw around him. That’s when Harper has done most of his playoff damage: two singles, two doubles, two home runs and six RBIs in eight at-bats, a .750 batting average and a 1.750 slug.
Of the 45 pitches Harper faced in the first three rounds with a man at first, an almost unimaginable 36 were fastballs. And of those 36, 21 were in the regulation strike zone, 58.3%.
“I have to imagine the other side is saying, ‘Hey, this is the guy we’re not going to let him beat us,'” Phillies wide receiver said. JT Realmuto. “And they keep throwing pitches to him in the strike zone. And he’s not missing them. Maybe he gets one, one or two good pitches to hit every day, which is more than he should be.”
After Harper’s success early in the postseason, the Astros could have narrowed their focus on the fastball first. Instead, they embraced it, and have done what the previous ones couldn’t. Of the 44 pitches thrown at Harper in the World Series, 30 have been fastballs, and Harper is 1-for-7 at-bats that end in fastballs. All six outs came on fastballs in the top half of the strike zone, the single on a pitch that trickled to the bottom.
In Game 3, though, Harper knew that would change, at least for the first few innings. The Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr.. he entered the game having thrown 74 pitches to left-handed hitters this postseason: 27 sliders, 25 curveballs, 19 changeups, two cutters and one fastball. With Kyle Schwarber at first because of course there was a runner at first and of course Harper would continue to thrive despite hitting .232/.337/.354 in such situations during the regular season small sample baseball is the fickle beast that it is : McCullers gave him a dangling curveball on the first pitch, and Harper deposited him 402 feet into the raucous right-field bleachers at Citizens Bank Park.
At the end of Game 3, he was hitting .324/.324/.676 with the bases empty this postseason, a line worth celebrating. Meanwhile, his numbers with his running backs were more ogle-worthy: .476/.542/1.048.
“Bryce Harper has had a star named after him for as long as he’s been playing baseball,” McCullers said. “It was a bad pitch, 0-0. I get it. I said to myself before the at-bat, ‘Don’t let him beat you here.'”
Defeated he was. McCullers rationalized that Nick Castellanos he hit behind Harper, “and he doesn’t slouch,” McCullers said. This is true, and between him and the three hitters regularly facing Harper, Schwarber, Hoskins and Realmuto, the depth of the Phillies’ lineup offers Harper both the ability to hit with runners (25 of 59 plate appearances for postseason) as protection to protect yourself from opponents throwing around you.
“It’s someone different every night. Well, it’s Bryce most nights, but everyone is finding a way to contribute,” said Castellanos, who is hitting .318 with runners this postseason. “And if someone doesn’t, someone else is picking them up.”
The Astros have shown a willingness to maneuver around Harper when necessary. With runners on first and second in the seventh inning of Game 1 and the score tied at 5, Bryan Abreu followed by a low fastball on the first pitch with four sliders, none of which reached the middle of the plate, and he walked with the bases loaded, only to see Castellanos strike out and finish off the threat.
“We pitched to him very carefully,” Astros pitching coach Josh Miller said. “You don’t want to put guys on base. In my opinion, you don’t want to intentionally walk guys unless the situation specifically calls for it. But, yeah, he’s red hot, a great hitter, one of the guys of star power in the league, and we really have to be on our game and execute it.
That’s where the failure is happening, and it’s particularly frustrating for pitchers because Harper he has shown vulnerability in this postseason. For a player whose plate discipline is one of his best qualities, Harper has been itching to swing, cutting 65.6% of postseason pitches compared to 56.2% in the regular season. He stared at balls on 34.6% of shots in the regular season and is at 28.7% during the playoffs. His strikeout and miss rate continues to rise: 15.9% in the regular season, 19.4% through the first three rounds and 29.5% in the World Series. He only has two unintentional walks in those 59 plate appearances.
In other words, Bryce Harper is beatable. He just isn’t being beaten. Astros catcher Martin Maldonado declined to comment when asked if the team was taking the right approach against a guy who has an all-time postseason berth.
“You have to ask Dusty [Baker, el manager de los Astros]. That’s not my call,” Maldonado said. “My job is to get them out.”
Phillies third baseman alec bohm He also had nothing good to say when asked if he thought the Astros should pitch around Harper. “It’s picking the poison out of it,” she said. “Obviously he’s going to come out sometimes, and it’s hard to give up a free base runner every time. You don’t want to just give the opponent a free runner, especially this time of year.”
Nor, Bohm admitted, do the Phillies’ opponents want to give Harper an open invitation to devastate them. Such is the dilemma facing the Astros for the rest of the series. Throwing against Harper often leads to bad things. Throwing around Harper could do the same thing. He has holes. But capitalizing on them is often too cumbersome.
It’s all a ‘Catch-22’, although for some, the answer is clear.
“Nothing against the rest of us on this team,” Realmuto said, “but I’m certainly preparing for them to say, ‘This guy is not going to beat me in any situation.'”
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Bryce Harper is having one of the best postseasons in history. Is it time to stop throwing him?