Sep 11, 2015, 6:00 AM EST
Bryce Harper had a phenomenal game Wednesday night at a time when his team needed it most. He homered. He doubled. He homered again, this time with the Nationals trailing the Mets late, their season on the brink of collapse.
It was the kind of performance that should have carried the Nationals through a must-win game, but it didn’t. And that’s in part because of one key factor about Harper’s plate appearances during that game: They all came with nobody on base.
Not once did Harper step to the plate with a chance to drive in a run other than his own. Twice he hit with two outs and nobody on. Twice he led off an inning.
And this wasn’t a rare phenomenon. All season, it feels like, Harper has had fewer opportunities with teammates on base than he should have had, certainly with men in scoring position. And the stats back it up, to an extent.
Harper has 565 plate appearances overall, which ranks 38th in the majors this year. Of those, 262 have come with men on base, 16th-most in baseball. But only 138 of his plate appearances have come with runners in scoring position, and that puts him in a tie for 49th with Adam Lind.
So, only 24.4 percent of Harper’s plate appearances this season have come with runners in scoring position. But wait, it gets worse.
Consider how often opponents have pitched around Harper in those situations this year. A full 37 of his 138 plate appearances with runners in scoring position have ended in a walk or hit-by-pitch. So, really, Harper has had an opportunity to swing the bat with men on second and/or third only 101 times this season. That accounts for only 22.3 percent of all of his non-walk/HBP plate appearances in 2015.
Now, here’s the kicker to this entire exercise: Harper has been just as good hitting the ball out of the park with teammates on base as he has without: 22.2 percent of his home runs (8-of-36) have come with runners in scoring position, nearly identical to his percentage of plate appearances with men on second and/or third.
Harper has been the same kind of hitter this season, no matter the situation. He just hasn’t had enough opportunities to hit with the bases clogged up in front of him.
Which makes you wonder this: Have the Nationals wasted Harper’s MVP-caliber season? He currently leads the majors in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, WAR, wOBA and WRC+ while ranking second in batting average, runs, walks and home runs per at-bat. He’s on pace to become the only major-leaguer besides Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds with an OPS over 1.100 since 2002.
But you know where he ranks in RBI: 18th, behind Brian McCann, despite an OPS more than 300 points higher than the Yankees catcher.
How much more difference might Harper have been able to make this season had more members of the Nationals simply been able to get on base in front of him and take advantage of his prodigious production?
“You can cry over spilled milk,” manager Matt Williams said Wednesday night. “But having guys injured and out of the lineup, the guys that generally hit in front of him, puts him at a disadvantage in that regard. To his credit, he’s stayed the course and done really well, regardless of the situation.”
Harper has done exceptionally well for the Nationals this season. Well enough to warrant the NL MVP award.
It’s just too bad the Nationals haven’t been able to make the most of his performance.
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
ON THE RADIO
As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
MON: 12:45 p.m.
TUE: 2:30 p.m.
WED: 4:30 p.m.
THU: 2:30 p.m.
FRI: 5:30 p.m.
SAT: 10:30 a.m.
*All times Eastern. You can also listen to the station on 94.3 FM, 92.7 FM and online at ESPN980.com. Click here for past audio clips.
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