I was lying on the floor Saturday, throwing a pen up in the air and catching it, and wondering when Bryce Harper would face Clayton Kershaw so I could watch it. Typical Saturday stuff. And it occurred to me: Kershaw? Who cares about Kershaw? He’s the best pitcher in the National League, sure, but Kershaw over seven innings isn’t nearly as dominant as the most dominant relievers are in just one inning. Even without facing Kershaw, Bryce Harper has faced almost-impossible pitching in the majors. The five pitchers Harper has faced with the highest strikeout rates this year:
- Aroldis Chapman: 16.1 strikeouts per nine innings
- Jason Grilli: 15.8
- Craig Kimbrel: 14.2
- Kenley Jansen: 13.7
- Jonny Venters: 12.0
I’m going to ignore Grilli, because one of Harper’s plate appearances against him was sort of uninstructive and the other won’t play on my computer at the moment. The other four pitchers have thrown 93 innings with 146 strikeouts and a 1.74 ERA. They will do.
Kenley Jansen, April 29
This might be a decent time to point out that humans, civilized people who listen to Brahms and sometimes eat french fries with a fork, clap. Imagine going to a zoo and watching a bunch of monkeys shrieking and waving their arms. Now imagine aliens going to an Earth and watching a bunch of people smash their hands together because they like the noise it makes. We are so awkward. Congratulations: you’ll never enjoy clapping again!
Each person in that GIF is hysterical, if you're in the right mood.
This was Bryce Harper’s first series of the year (he just missed facing Kershaw, sad face), and it was Kenley Jansen’s first series as the Dodgers’ closer. They faced each other on Sunday, with the Dodgers up by two and Harper representing the tying run with two outs. It. All. Comes. Down. To. This.
First pitch: A fastball away, 92 mph. Jansen’s fastball has a lot of arm-side tailing movement today, which makes this a not-very-difficult take for Harper.
Second pitch: Harper steps out when Jansen takes too much time. Jansen and his catcher meet to discuss. The pitch is 93 mph, just above the belt. We see the classic Harper swing/follow-through, by which I mean it will be considered classic in a few decades. Now it’s just a kid with a swing, and it’s a scary swing. But he misses it. The count is even, unless you count backwards from four balls and three strikes, which might make more logical sense. In which case Jansen is still ahead.
Third pitch: Matt Treanor wants the pitch up, and it is up, but not quite as up as Matt Treanor (or Misty May-Treanor, in a skimpy bikini; hello, Googlers!) would like it. Harper is a tick slow on it and pops it foul down the line. He takes a long walk out of the box, adjusts his gloves. He gets in the box and once again calls time out. This is actually a different Bryce Harper than we’ll see in the later at-bats. He’s fidgety, or if not fidgety then at least not quite as quiet.
Fourth pitch: Another high target, but Jansen’s fastball is low and sinking heavily. It might have caught the strike zone, but the pull of the pitch drags Treanor’s glove down to the ground, and the lack of a frame dooms the pitch. Harper watches it all the way into the glove, and the count is 2-2.
Fifth pitch: 94 mph, hard tail down and away, pretty easy take.
Sixth pitch: 93 mph, and Harper—even with two strikes—takes a massive swing at it. That might have been his pitch. He seems to think that was his pitch. After fouling it off, he grimaces.
Seventh pitch: 94 mph outside. He takes it and draws the walk.
Toughest pitch: The final pitch.
It’s not that this was a particularly difficult pitch to take, but it was Harper's second big-league game, and he represented the tying run, or else the final out, against one of the most unhittable pitchers in the game. The Dodgers set up away, so they thought he would chase, and Jansen more or less hit his target. Maybe Harper just saw it well out of Jansen’s hand and never had to think about it, but wow, what a take. We talk about plate discipline for hitters, but really what we’re describing is batting eye. Hitting is probably too instinctual, and too fast, for a value-judgment word like “discipline” to apply. Here, Harper shows a good eye, identifying this as a ball. He also shows discipline, in the purest sense, by not swinging anyway and trying to be the hero.
Aroldis Chapman, May 12
The two at-bats that most stand out in my memory for their sheer at-batness, not historical importance, are Barry Bonds against Eric Gagne in 2004, and Barry Bonds against Francisco Rodriguez in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. Gagne in 2003-2004 and Rodriguez in the last six weeks of the 2002 season were perhaps the two most dominant relievers of that decade, and Bonds was obviously the most dominant hitter. Against Gagne, Bonds represented something less than the tying run, and against Rodriguez, the Giants had a three-run lead, so the pitchers were able to go right after him. Of course, Gagne got Bonds out a lot, and as a Giants fan I probably saw all of those matchups. Rodriguez got Bonds out, in the same World Series, and I saw all of those. So why do I remember these two at-bats? Because Bonds was, in my opinion, even more dominating than those two pitchers, and therefore it is his home runs that stand out as the true showdowns between great and greater.
And now here we are with Chapman and Harper. Harper is not yet early-century Barry Bonds. He might approach it, but he’s not yet. Chapman is, however, at this moment about as good as 2004 Eric Gagne and 2002 Frankie Rodriguez. The matchup between these two is amazing, but for it to be the true outcome—for now, at least—Chapman must win. Chapman wins.
First pitch: 99 mph, at the belt. It is absolutely impossible that any player, especially a left-handed batter, could catch up to this pitch. Harper nearly does, but fouls it off. What’s interesting about his at-bats against Jansen, Chapman and, as you’ll see, the others, is how willing Harper is to swing early in the count. He has never faced these pitchers before, and all of these pitchers (except Venters) have some history of walking themselves into trouble. Indeed, it’s nearly the only way that they get in trouble. They throw Harper pitches in the upper 90s, and in the upper part of the zone, and he’s not bothered at all. He just swings. He doesn’t catch up to this one, but he’s also not overwhelmed by it.
Second pitch: Slider, 87 mph, fouled off. Harper has a good-sized leg kick in his swing, but occasionally he tempers it down to a much smaller toe-tap. He does it here. I wonder if he does it when he suspects an off-speed pitch is coming. I wonder if he has a tell that he’s guessing. In this case, he does it, he gets the slider, but he fouls it off. He has so much force in his swing that when he gets a little bit mixed up his body almost seems to turn backward onto itself:
Third pitch: Ahead 0-2, Chapman throws a high fastball at 100 mph. Look at this picture, and admire the torque on both sides:
This is some planets-colliding violence right here. Is it CGI? It might be CGI.
The pitch is not in the strike zone. It’s high, and a little bit away, and it’s 100 mph. It’s so fast that, by comparison, it makes Harper’s swing look really long. If I were a scout, by which I mean if I were hired to do scouting things even though I have no idea how to scout or what a good swing looks like or features, I would have jotted down “long swing.” I don’t know if Harper has a long swing. I just know it looks long when it’s supposed to be catching up to Aroldis Chapman’s shoulder-high fastball. And yet, you know what? Harper is also, oh, an inch late on it.
Toughest pitch: That 0-2 fastball.
Jonny Venters, May 26
And this is the opposite of the Chapman at-bat. This one is almost unthinkable. Don’t think about it. If you think about it you’re going to talk yourself out of it. Just hold hands, close your eyes, count to three, and leap as far as you can.
First pitch: Catcher J.C. Boscan sets up low, but Venters gets it up and in on Harper. At Doug Thorburn’s advice, I mostly watch the catcher’s target when I watch baseball now, and it’s interesting how often you see the pitcher miss his location by multiple feet and end up getting a swinging strike or weak contact. You have to remind yourself that the batter can’t see the glove and therefore doesn’t know he’s seeing a bad pitch. To him, it’s just a pitch, and maybe it’s even a better pitch because he’s no dummy, he knows where they’re going to try to pitch him, and here comes a fastball in the exact opposite location. He just thinks he guessed wrong. Venters throws a terrible pitch that ends up in a perfect location, at 94 mph. Can’t hit a pitch that fast, that up, that in, that on the edge of the strike zone, with that much boring movement, especially when you’re expecting Venters to work you low. Baseball. Harper whiffs.
Second pitch: Again, Harper does the little toe-tap instead of the full leg hike. This time, though, it’s not a slider, but the classic Venters’ sinker, at the knees with a little hop of movement. Harper foul-tips it. Again, he’s totally comfortable swinging at early-count fastballs, but again he’s in a two-strike hole.
Third pitch: A slider. It’s not a great slider, starting a bit too far low and away, and Harper takes it with a little bit of a checked swing. Harper actually checks his swing quite a bit in these at-bats. The combination of starting his swing fairly early and getting so much force behind them means there has to be a ton of strain on his wrists and arms to stop the swing. I’m just putting this on the record, so I can say I told you so if he ends up injuring himself on a violent checked swing.
Fourth pitch: Venters again is supposed to be throwing it low, but he gets it letter high. Here’s what it looks like:
Foul ball, right? You’ve seen enough baseball that you know that pitch, and the batter swinging that late, means foul ball. I swore it was a foul ball. Here’s the rest of the clip:
Harper actually hit a line drive home run over the 380 sign in left field. Not even the corner. The 380 sign. It was so hard, and hit so fast, the left fielder chased it for just a few steps and then watched it pass him. There have been nearly 1,600 home runs hit this year, and Harper’s home run off Venters was the 42nd fastest off the bat, according to Hit Tracker. And it was to the opposite field! It was the 19th-lowest home run hit, and it went 392 feet, and it was to the opposite field.
Look at these two frames and watch how quickly Harper's bat catches up to this pitch, which is coming so fast that, in the second frame, a remnant of where the pitch had been is still visible on the screen:
Toughest pitch: The first one, the one that Venters missed badly on. See the late movement on the pitch? It looks like a frame is missing from the GIF. No frame is missing.
Harper’s swing looks so violent, but if you slow it down frame by frame, his balance is great.
In the first one, he looks like he’s a coach hitting grounders to the infield before the game. In the second one, like Chase Utley or Will Clark lining a ball up the middle. Just, whatever, hittin' some baseballs, no big deal. But then, at the end of the swing, the force basically carries him off the ground. Look at his feet in that GIF, sliding almost off the surface of the earth.
Craig Kimbrel, May 26
Harper faced Kimbrel later in the same game.
First pitch: A 97-mph fastball that was supposed to be on the outside corner but runs back over the plate, knee high. What’s sort of crazy is that you could imagine Harper hitting it 500 feet, because that’s just what you’ve come to expect. But it was a really good pitch. Even the catcher has a little bit of a hard time with it. It turned Bryce Harper momentarily into a zombie:
Second pitch: A backfoot slider that breaks Harper down a bit. It’s hard to imagine how anybody in the majors gets a hit, ever. Kimbrel just threw a 97-mph fastball at the knees, followed by a slider in the dirt, and when they are halfway to the plate (three frames after release) they look identical:
Again: The second one almost hits him in the foot. The first one is a strike, and 97 mph. Harper is, again, down 0-2.
Third pitch: A 98-mph fastball way high and way outside. Harper starts to go, checks his swing, and appeals to the umpire, who says he held up. Telling you, he’s going to break a wrist on a checked swing some day. I have no idea if this is how wrists work or break.
It’s a bit interesting that, back in the first at-bat we covered, the Dodgers mostly worked him low. I don’t know what their scouting report on Harper was at the time, and I don’t know if the plate appearances against Chapman, Kimbrel, and Venters are representative of what the rest of the league has done against him, but in the later at-bats teams really seem to be going after him with fastballs high. Obviously, these pitches are much harder than most of the league can throw. But Harper does seem to chase high fastballs more than is good for him. This might be his one weakness as a hitter: 100-mph pitches at his shoulders. Good luck, league!
Fourth pitch: A fastball at 98 that cuts across the plate but is a little low, and Harper takes it.
Fifth pitch: A slider. He swings again, but this pitch is slightly higher, and he punches a hard chopper down the line. Right down the line; he gets a slow break out of the box because he thinks it’ll go foul, but it appears to get a little chalk, and the first baseman fields it. The famously hustling Harper looks exhausted as he pulls up, 10 feet shy of first base, and walks to the dugout. I’ve never seen him look so tired.
Toughest pitch: The first fastball.
So in four plate appearances against perhaps the four toughest at-bats in the NL, Harper went 1-for-3 with a walk, a home run, and a strikeout. He swung at 11 pitches and whiffed at four. He went out of the zone on probably two. Interestingly, this all just makes me want to see Bryce Harper face Clayton Kershaw even more.