When great players are in deep slumps, there are usually some clues to what went wrong. With Bryce Harper, his hot start to the season began with a slash of .315/.487/.778/1.265 for two weeks — but then his bat disappeared after “tax day” in mid-April. From April 17th to the Home Run Derby, Harper only batted .194 with a .407 sluggo, and the only reason his stats remained decent during that period were his high level of walks and home runs. The Washington Nationals braintrust figured out why the batting average was so low and the strikeout rate so high. It was too much launch angle. Yes, you heard that right — too much launch angle.
Nationals’ hitting coach, Kevin Long, who most felt is synonymous to “launch angle” is really just anti-groundball. Long is always quick to spit out the “.220 stat” which is the batting average of ground balls, and in Long’s lexicon, groundballs are a dirty word. He wants his hitters to keep balls off the infield dirt and get them in the air where the success rate is much higher — and in particular he wants line drives. He calls the drills B.L.D.’s which is an acronym for “boring line drives” and with his knowledge of how pitchers have thwarted “launch angle” by pitching higher in the zone, it is time to adjust and that is what Long, and Ron Harper, Bryce’s pops, discussed in reconstructing Bryce’s swing. They went back to basics with Bryce doing tee work and cage work, and to see if Kevin Long’s claims of line drives was correct, @CapHillNats202 went on a fact-finding mission to see if Harper’s second half success was attributable to this new approach.
Well, it looks like the stats back-up Long’s claim as the results were dramatic as you can see in this chart and graphs of Harper’s 2018 season:
From @CapHillNats202, he compiled Line Drive % by month from Fangraphs with wOBA in parenthesis:
March/April: 19.4% (.403)
May: 23.4% (.355)
June: 25.0% (.302)
July: 17.0% (.364)
August: 27.0% (.407)
September/Oct: 27.2% (.410)
First Half Overall: 20.9% (.350)
Second Half Overall: 24.2% (.412)
Harper’s August and September numbers showed a marked improvement in line drives and the batting average and wOBA took off. Harper’s second half numbers are MVP-worthy as he batted .300 with a .972 OPS.
“[Harper] made his father [and] everybody involved got caught up in the launch-angle stuff,” Kevin Long said. “He literally tried to hit the ball in the air way too much. When we started simplifying, we started calling them ‘boring line drives.’ Let’s go do some BLD work we’d say. It was the most boring cage work you’ve ever seen, but it translated.”
Harper’s near 3-month funk certainly pulled down his numbers for the season, but as they say in sports, “it’s not how you start but how you finish” and while context is key here, you still are what your overall numbers say you are. While you can put the “spin” on it that Harper is back on track given how he ended his season, this gives hope to the team that signs him that he has it figured out now. Garçon, can I order a plate of BLDs?