Any group that consists of Chris Davis, Jose Bautista and Bryce Harper strikes fear in anyone who dare face it, as they have become three of the biggest faces of power hitting ballplayers. But despite careers full of success, including 2015 wRC+ of 147, 148 and 197, the 2016 season has been less kind. Bautista and Harper have a wRC+ of 112 and 114, while Davis has fallen a little harder down to 105.
All three are hitters who came into this season worthy of being picked in the first round and seemed like locks for at least 30 bombs since they were all coming off fantastic years of at least 40 each. So let’s investigate into what has happened to the three, why they’ve struggled so much compared to their usual standards, and what this means going forward.
When we look at Chris Davis, something important about his performance over the years is that it’s prone to fluctuations. Part of the flux is that his contact rates have always been inconsistent; good batting averages have led to more dingers, while poor batting averages have intuitively dampened his power output. His batting average is always going to be heavily tied to his BABIP because of how few balls are really in play with him, since he strikes out over 30% of the time and hits homers 21.1% of the time per fly ball.
While some ups and downs are expected, concern begins to mount when looking deeper into his discipline stats. Davis has slowed down his strike zone swing percentage heavily, down to 59.3% from a career 68.1%. The problem is that we’ve also seen his contact go down from 67.7% career to 63.4% this year, meaning he’s letting pitchers get way more strikes on him than they deserve. The result has been a career worst 33.3% strikeout rate.
We’re also seeing pitchers begin to adapt to his style. Like most power hitters, Davis absolutely crushes fastballs. But pitchers have picked up on this and are throwing him very few, down almost 7 full percentage points to 32.4%. In there place has been more changeups, a pitch that he is 3.4 runs below average on this year.
You can try to call it even year bad luck, since he has hit 100 homers on his last two odd-numbered years and disappointed the others, but there are some changes to Davis’ style this season that have some long-term effects. A full rebound to a 50 homer guy seems tough to project, given his discipline numbers and how pitchers are approaching him now. Davis will be serviceable going forward, but highly overrated.
Owner of the most exciting bat flip Canada has seen since Joe Carter, Joey Bats is having a rough season at the dish (intentionally phrased to avoid Rougned Odor punching jokes, which I have now ruined by bringing it up). His isolated power numbers are still excellent (.221) but he’s on pace for his lowest homer total we’ve seen since his career renaissance in 2010.
Part of his fall here is due to not hitting the ball as hard as usual, his soft contact percentage is up to 21.4% from his career 17.3%. In addition to this, he’s hitting far less fly balls than last year when he launched 40 homers, down from 48.8% to 42.4%. If you don’t hit the ball hard, and you don’t hit it in the air, it’s going to be pretty tough to be a successful power hitter.
But these numbers are not quite as bad as they seem on the surface, and tell a much different story than Chris Davis’ do. Contact hardness is highly volatile, and while Bautista is hitting less fly balls now, he stayed at the same rate from 2012-13 where he had wRC+ marks of 137 and 135. Yes he’s getting older (35), but Bautista can stay at an elite level in the coming years even though this year we see him struggling. His performance looks like a blip on the radar, as his peripheral stats suggest he’s still very good. Watch for him to have a strong finish to the season, which should indicate if he’s ready to return to form for 2017.
If I had to pick a power hitter to regress as heavily as this, I would probably still be guessing. 2015 was Bryce Harper’s coming out party; he had shown the tools and the talent since he was 16, and then every year since. While a 112 wRC+ is still decent, it’s miles away from the 197 mark he put up last year at 22 years old. In a year where he’s supposed to still be maturing, he’s disappointing across the board.
Part of what’s hurting him is the Barry Bonds effect – your performance at the dish can only be so transcendental before pitchers start changing the game plan. Look at pitch count heatmaps from this year and the year before, shown chronologically:
Pitchers straight up are throwing him more pitches out of the zone, in an area he has had terrible success with. There’s just not a lot given to Harper for him to have much of a chance with, partially explaining his season so far.
And looking a little deeper into the numbers is Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs. Jeff’s stuff is seriously always worth a read, so drop him a click. In a nutshell what is going on here is that he’s posing the idea that Harper’s 2015 was unrealistically good, and that to look at that as any sort of benchmark is improper. He uses a comparison with slugging percentage and exit velocity for different pitch and hit types and finds Harper’s 2015 was an extreme outlier in terms of good luck, that he got way more extra bases than most despite not hitting the ball as hard as the league model would expect.
While we know Bryce Harper has exceptional talent, he still isn’t necessarily ready to be in the game’s elite. His 2015 was historically good, but it was fueled by heaping doses of luck unlikely to be replicated. He has still hit 20 bombs already and on pace for around 20 steals – we know he has value. But with so many people gushing over the talent he oozes, it’s best to stay away from the astronomical asking price surrounding the kid for now.
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