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April 24, 2013

Raising Aces

Now Pitching, Bryce Harper

by Doug Thorburn

Bryce Harper's supernatural baseball gifts have been evident since before he could drive. Today he’s a 20-year-old super-freak who is slugging over .700 in the majors. His rare combination of competitive intensity, Las Vegas moxie, and otherworldly talent has set the stage for a legendary baseball career as the next lightning rod in the game. His raw power grades out as a pure 80 on the scouting ledger, and though such elite marks are extraordinarily rare, the legit five-tool player also has a throwing arm that ranks at the top of the 20-80 scale.

Such incredible arm strength would no doubt tempt some coaches to try Harper on the mound, and though such a move would be unthinkable at this stage of his professional career, it should come as no surprise that baseball's prodigal son has toed the rubber a time or two in his past. Thanks to BP colleague Sam Miller, my attention was drawn to just such an occurrence from Harper's JuCo days, and I was compelled to do a mechanical evaluation of Harper's brief cameo as a pitcher.

The legend of Bryce Harper includes stories of 96-mph heat from the mound, and though tales of that nature are often drenched in hyperbole, Harper has demonstrated the kind of cannon in the majors that makes those claims believable. His mound acumen was enough for his manager at the College of Southern Nevada to call upon Harper to make an appearance out of the bullpen in a close game. Fortunately for the sofa scout, someone was on-hand at that ballgame in April 2010 to capture some video and post it to YouTube, allowing me to make some armchair evaluations of what could have been had Harper chosen a different path to baseball immortality.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

45

Momentum

60

Torque

65

Posture

60

Release Distance

60

As one might expect from his aggressive approach to hitting, Harper brings the noise when he steps on the pitching mound. His game on the field is built on his command of high-intensity athleticism, which holds true when it comes to his pitching mechanics. Harper is a marvel of rotational energy and torque, with quick-twitch movements precipitated by an exaggerated load as he taps into his considerable power, an overlapping trend that applies at the plate, in the field, and on the mound. His pure arm speed outweighs his torque due to exceptional strength, yet he is far more than just a chucker, as he uses his lower body to provide a solid foundation for pitching. Harper takes advantage of strong momentum early in the motion, and he shifts into high gear after maximum leg lift to add even more power to his delivery.

Players with exceptional power grades typically struggle to maintain balance and control during the high-energy phases, and though Harper's weakest scores are in the stability categories, his raw skills on the mound are nothing short of remarkable for an athlete who is not paid to pitch. He actually looks like a pitcher on the mound, with a nuanced delivery that includes a healthy leg kick, very impressive momentum, and the whirlwind torque that bears his trademark.  The sample is much too small to venture a guess at a grade for repetition, but Harper has the underlying ingredients to suggest that he could master pitching if he so desired, with the upside for sick radar-gun readings if he were to iron out the timing elements of his delivery.

Harper's balance wavers a bit near max leg lift, and there is a bit too much head movement relative to his center-of-mass in the early phases of the delivery, but his head stabilizes near foot strike. His momentum comes with inconsistencies along with a drop-n-drive into foot strike, but that is an assessment relative to full-time pitchers—his ability to maintain even decent stability through such a powerful delivery is beyond impressive when considering his marginal time spent on the mound. The most critical grade on the report card is missing, and I would assume that Harper would score low for repetition if he were immediately thrown into the fire, but his ridiculous baseball-specific talents suggest that he would have been a top draft pick had he chosen a pitching path to the majors at a young age. 

The report card for Harper's brief stint is incredible. Typically, when a position player takes the mound, the result is an inefficient mess that even a casual fan can detect as flawed. But if one were to watch the clips of Bryce Harper on the mound without the benefit of context, he could pass as a legit pitching prospect based just on mechanics and velocity. Even Harper's glove is well-positioned and stabilized over the front foot, as he tracks closer to the plate after foot strike.

In order to appreciate the relative maturity of Harper's delivery, I submit for your approval two other major-league sluggers who briefly took the red pill for an escape to the world of pitching.

There are only two players who have out-slugged Harper this season, and next on the list is Chris Davis of the Orioles, whose .794 slugging percentage is second only to Justin Upton's .813 mark. Davis tried his own hand at pitching last season, with a two-inning stint against the Red Sox at Fenway Park in May of 2012.

Davis entered in the bottom of the 16th inning of a 6-6 ballgame for a desperate Baltimore club that had burned out its bullpen. The box score was prettier than the actual performance, with Davis keeping Boston off the scoreboard, striking out a pair of Sox, and earning the win after Boston plated three runs in the top of the 17th and Davis was able to hold the fort in the bottom half. It was the fourth consecutive extra-inning victory for the Orioles, starting a trend that would extend throughout the regular season.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

50

Momentum

40

Torque

40

Posture

60

Release Distance

40

Davis' delivery might be boring, but it is reasonably efficient. His posture is actually plus and he remains stable through the early phases of the delivery, but his balance leaves something to be desired near release point, as indicated by a back foot that leaves the ground prematurely. His balance also drifts side-to-side on some pitches, but his head remains stable on the vertical plane by avoiding any temptation for a drop-n-drive delivery, netting a 50 grade overall.

Davis lacks much charge to his pitching motion, with a basic delivery that helps to minimize the margin for error.  It is easier to repeat such a simple motion, a fact that allowed Davis to minimize the damage despite his relative inexperience on the bump, though he was still very inconsistent with his mechanical timing and sequencing. He hit 91 mph on the gun, but he was inefficient in his use of torque, with late hip rotation that paired with a delayed trigger with his upper-body to impair his consistency of timing, often resulting in elbow drag.

The mechanics were not too shabby overall, with baseline grades that hovered around league average, though a grade for repetition would surely bring down his mechanics GPA. He obviously lacks the stuff of a big-league pitcher, and his offensive explosion greatly lowers the incentive for the Orioles to run the experiment again, especially considering the recurrence of dangerous elbow drag in his delivery.

When a position player is summoned to the mound in a major-league game, it is typically due to a drained bullpen in a game that goes deep into extra innings, as demonstrated by the Davis example. However, there have been situations where a manager chooses to save his relievers in a blowout scenario. Such was the case on May 29, 1993, when Texas Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy called upon enigmatic outfielder Jose Canseco to toe the rubber in the eighth inning of a 12-1 ballgame against the Red Sox.

At the time, Canseco was the class clown of the American League, having taken a flyball off of his noggin for an opponent's home run just three days prior, and the tomfoolery continued once he stepped on the mound. He used an awkward sidearm delivery to throw his version of a knuckleball against the Red Sox, with predictably poor results, allowing three walks, two hits, and three runs in his inning of work. He registered just two strike calls among the first 11 pitches thrown, and he went on to induce walks to three of the first four batters faced. All three of the outs were recorded via flyballs, and his wayward offerings darted behind batters when didn’t bounce in the dirt.

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

50

Momentum

40

Torque

20

Posture

60

Release Distance

30

There was little opportunity to evaluate the right-hander's windup, as he walked the first batter on four consecutive pitches and would spend the rest of the inning in the stretch. His balance was halfway decent, and his sidearm delivery came paired with plus posture. Canseco flashed a 70 posture grade on occasion, but he manipulated his spine-tilt to the arm-side in the effort to generate the low arm slot. The early momentum was fine, but he had a very short stride due to a minimal leg lift, and his timing pattern put him into foot strike before he could generate much of a second gear. One would expect higher grades in the power categories for such a chemically enhanced slugger, but Canseco generated  extremely weak torque to float his knucklers.

Supposedly, Canseco was bringing serious heat in the bullpen just prior to entering the game that day, just as he had in an exhibition game earlier that month, and the men in the dugout were surprised to see the knuckleball. In the words of manager Kennedy:

One day we were getting killed by the Red Sox at Fenway, a real blowout, and I had used up the pen the day before. Jose was DHing that game and I really needed a pitcher, the perfect spot to let him throw his inning. He went down to the bullpen and in a minute I could hear the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt-hard. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Because there were all sorts of fans down there watching, I think he was trying to show how hard he could bring it. I told Claude Osteen to call the bullpen to sit him down. He had thrown enough. Unfortunately, he never sat down. Then we called him in to pitch the ninth and right away I noticed that he was having trouble. Instead of 95-mph fastballs, he was throwing knuckleballs, almost lobbing them in. The Sox got a couple of hits and he was still not throwing a fastball. The next day he admitted he had felt some pain while throwing in the pen but hadn’t said anything, and then he told us his arm was a little sore.

Canseco would undergo Tommy John surgery a few weeks later, which makes him a cautionary tale for the fan with dreams of Steve Nebraska dancing through his or her head. Bryce Harper might have better mechanics than his predecessors, but the Nationals would be foolish to risk taking the bat out of his hands by putting him in to pitch. That said, we have seen players who were able to resurrect a failing career with a transition to pitching (such as Sean Doolittle of the A's), and National League teams in particular have an incentive toward similar pursuits.

Doolittle had an incredibly quick adaptation, thanks to a simple delivery that is mechanically efficient, which is typical of hitters-turned-pitchers. Consider that all three of the profiled players displayed above-average posture with minimal spine-tilt, which could be a sample-size effect or could be due to the relative lack of conventional instruction that these players have received in their careers, allowing them to avoid the mantra of “over the top” that has plagued so many professional moundsmen.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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