Bryce Harper has made his fair share of adjustments during his breakout 2015 season, from his newfound patience at the plate, to the hitch he added to his swing in May, to his recent tendency to drive the ball to all fields. Just about everything the 22-year-old has touched has turned to gold and he’s been rightfully applauded for the shifts he’s made at the plate that have turned him into one of the top hitters in the game.
However, Harper was on the receiving end of some criticism from writers, announcers, and even his own manager after last Tuesday’s game against the Yankees. The Nationals and Yankees were locked in a 1–1 tie, with Washington’s lone run coming on a solo blast by Harper off Masahiro Tanaka in the fourth inning. The combatants matched up again to start the seventh. Harper whiffed on a first-pitch splitter that dove out of the zone, then laid off another splitter to even the count. He fouled off a third straight splitter to run the count to 1–2. Tanaka went back to the well for the fourth pitch of the at-bat, only to watch Harper square around and bunt the pitch foul.
That’s right. Bryce Harper, your major-league leader in True Average, had gone deep against Tanaka in his previous at-bat but struck out trying to bunt his way aboard with two strikes his next time up. As you can see in the clip above, Nationals manager Matt Williams was not a fan of the decision, and he voiced his disdain for Harper’s two-strike bunting the next day. Here’s Chris Lingebach for CBS DC on the skipper’s take on Harper’s bunt:
In Matt Williams’ weekly radio appearance with The Sports Junkies the following morning, show host Eric Bickel relayed his cringing reaction to the Nats manager, to seeing one of the hottest power hitters in baseball attempt a two-strike bunt.
“I had the same reaction you had to it,” Williams replied. “Especially in this ballpark. He’s one swing away from putting us ahead 2–1. And, you know, two strikes; we’ve seen it this year where he’s taken a two-strike pitch that’s a changeup—or whatever it is—and he’s wrapped it around the right field foul pole.
“So, yeah, no. I had the same reaction you did. I don’t want him bunting with two strikes. If he’s going to do that, then he’s got to steal second and third, and he’s not necessarily going to do that. I want him swinging. So, yeah, those are conversations that we have. I don’t anticipate that happening again.”
Williams wasn’t the only one roasting Harper for his bunt attempt. The YES Network broadcast team wondered what Harper could possibly have been thinking and some in the media were doing the same.
So what exactly was Harper thinking? Well, if you take a look at the amount of real estate the Yankees left open down the third-base line, you’ll begin to understand his thought process.
The Yankees were altering their defensive positioning within counts against Harper throughout the game, as they played three infielders to the right side of second base and kept Chase Headley in to protect against the bunt early in the count (as can be seen on Harper’s home run earlier in the game). With two strikes, Headley backed up and Didi Gregorius moved back to the shortstop side of the second-base bag, so this was the only time Harper was ever given the opportunity to bunt against the shift.
Throughout Harper’s career he has been guilty of occasionally being a little too bunt happy. In a 4–2 loss to the Giants back in May 2013, he dropped down two sacrifice bunts, one in the first inning with a runner at first and no outs in a scoreless tie, and another one in the same base-out state with a one-run lead in the eighth inning. After the game, then-manager Davey Johnson told reporters that neither bunt was called from the dugout.
Last year, Harper showed up in an early edition of Ben Lindbergh‘s “Bunting to Beat the Shift” series when he struck out on a foul bunt against Jered Weaver with no out and a runner on first, down 2–1 in the sixth inning. While the Angels had Harper shaded, there wasn’t nearly the same amount of space to lay down a bunt and it appeared to be more of a sacrifice attempt. Harper showed bunt on the first pitch of the at-bat and then attempted a butcher boy swing on the second pitch from Weaver before later walking back to the dugout on this failed two-strike bunt attempt.
Unlike those occasions, Harper’s bunt against the Yankees was a clear attempt at a base hit. As teams have implemented more shifts against Harper this season, his aggressive bunting has become more justified and served as a weapon to counter the shift. Last season, Harper was rarely shifted against, with Inside Edge recording just nine total shifts against him. Seven of those were by the Orioles, who were the fourth-most-frequent user of the shift last season and were the only team to implement a full shift against Harper. Going into this past weekend, Harper had already been shifted against 36 times; the Brewers added a handful to that total over the weekend.
Harper has hit the ball on the ground less often this season but when he has gotten on top of the ball, he’s been pulling it more frequently than ever before. From FanGraphs:
And even as Harper has begun to drive the ball to all fields over the past month or so, as Jeff Sullivan pointed out last week, it’s mostly been on balls in the air. On groundballs, Harper’s average spray angle has remained largely unchanged and teams are still justified in stacking one side of the infield.
In response to the increased shifting, Harper has shown bunt 18 times this season, according to IE, with a number of those attempts being the result of Harper trying to take advantage of what the defense was giving him.
In retrospect, Harper’s bunt attempt against the Yankees probably shouldn’t have been so surprising, as this wasn’t even the first time he had attempted to beat the shift with two strikes. Let’s take a look at those, plus a few other notable instances of Harper squaring around, and how defenses have responded to his threat to bunt.
Marlins, April 24th–26th
Harper’s first bunt hit of the season came in his first at-bat of a series against the Marlins in late April, on a 1–1 pitch from Mat Latos. The Marlins weren’t deploying three infielders to the right of second base but Adeiny Hechavarria was heavily shaded up the middle and Martin Prado was playing deep enough that even if Harper had pushed a bunt past Latos, it would have taken a perfect play by the third baseman to get the out. This might have been Harper judging that he could beat out a decent bunt against the 6-foot-6 Latos rather than a bunt to beat the shift, but Prado’s positioning ensured that Latos—not the most agile fielder and one who was falling off towards first base after his delivery—was the only fielder who was ever going to have a shot to make the play.
Harper’s next time at bat with the bases empty was the next day against Tom Koehler in the fourth inning. He fouled off Koehler’s 2–1 offering down the first base line and the MASN broadcast provided the opportunity to see where Prado was positioned: He wasn’t exactly in on the grass but he was playing farther in than the previous day. As you can see below, Prado takes a number of steps back after the fouled off 2–1 pitch; he’s positioned about halfway between the infield and outfield grass when Harper grounds Koehler’s 2–2 offering to second base.
In the series finale the Marlins got lazy with their bunt defense against Harper. Prado was shown playing in on the grass against the slugger prior to the first pitch of his at-bat in the second inning but MASN play-by-play man Bob Carpenter noted that the third baseman was playing back when Harper squared around on Dan Haren‘s 0–1 pitch.
Harper pulled back on what he thought was a pitch out of the zone and let home plate umpire Gabe Morales know his opinion after the pitch was called for strike two. Harper would go on to launch his fifth home run of the season a few pitches later.
The effect of Harper’s bunt and subsequent bunt attempt during that series against the Marlins could be seen carrying over into Washington’s next series against Miami at the beginning of May. We don’t get a shot of Miami’s infield alignment until the series finale on May 6th but as you can see, Prado is playing close to the infield grass against Harper on a 1-0 pitch. However, the third baseman’s positioning made little difference in this particular game, which happened to be the one where Harper went yard three times.
Padres, May 14th–17th
The Padres were the first team to consistently utilize a full shift against Harper this season (the Diamondbacks used a full shift against him once, according to Inside Edge), placing three infielders to the right of second base three times in each of the first two games of a four-game set in May. When Harper came to bat with the Nationals up 4–0 in the fifth inning of game three, he finally took advantage of the open real estate, collecting his second bunt hit of the season on an 0–1 pitch from Andrew Cashner.
The next day is where things get really interesting. The Padres had clearly gotten the picture about Harper’s willingness to lay a bunt down against the shift, as Corey Spangenberg was even with the third base bag early in the count.
Spangenberg remained stationed there until Ian Kennedy blew a fastball by Harper to run the count to 1–2. Harper looked on as the Padres’ third baseman jogged across the field to switch sides of the diamond with Alexi Amarista, who moved over to the standard shortstop position.
But as soon as Amarista had settled in just a few steps in front of the outfield grass he was forced to break in because Harper was showing bunt on Kennedy’s 1–2 pitch.
Harper clearly had every intention of trying to bunt to beat the shift in a two-strike count, as he didn’t pull the bat back until he had identified that the pitch was headed out of the strike zone. This was something the Padres were completely willing to let Harper try again, as the MASN feed showed Amarista unmoved from his spot at shortstop when Harper later ripped the payoff pitch into right field for a triple.
Cubs, May 27th
This one isn’t really about bunting to beat the shift, but it’s another example of Harper trying to use the bunt as a weapon when the situation presents itself. Harper had struck out in his first at bat against Jon Lester and came to bat in the fourth inning after Yunel Escobar singled to lead things off. Keep in mind, this is the same Jon Lester who refused to throw over to first base for nearly two years, then airmailed a pickoff throw into right field minutes after snapping that streak. Lester’s case of the yips has been well documented and even since his errant throw he’s done things like get out of the way of an easy double-play ball to avoid having to make a throw to second base. If ever there was a pitcher to bunt against, here’s your guy. Sure enough, Harper squared around on the first pitch from Lester and pulled back for ball one.
With the count in his favor, Harper swung away and swung through a fastball for strike one. On the next pitch he went right back to the bunt.
Now, there was a runner on first and in a scoreless tie of a pitching duel between Lester and Max Scherzer, I suppose Harper could have been looking to play for one run here. But given how late Harper was squaring around on these bunt attempts, I feel comfortable saying he was thinking base hit, with a productive out as a solid backup in case he didn’t get a great bunt down. Facing a tough lefty in Lester probably factored in as well.
Blue Jays, June 2nd–3rd
Harper didn’t drop a bunt down against the Blue Jays during their interleague series earlier this month, but he did put the Jays on notice that he was willing, as he squared around to bunt for a hit in both games of their June 2nd doubleheader. In the matinee matchup, Harper came to bat against right-hander Bo Schultz with the bases empty and two outs in the seventh inning of a 2–0 game.
Harper squared around at Shultz’s 1–1 offering but pulled back as the pitch bounced in the dirt. Neither broadcast provided a shot of the infield alignment but Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson is shown backing up toward the outfield grass after the pitch, presumably to where he had been before charging in during Harper’s bunt attempt. Harper would end up drawing a walk.
In the nightcap, Marco Estrada took the hill for the Blue Jays and served up a single to Harper the first time the two faced off. Harper’s next trip to the plate was to lead off the fourth inning and he fell into an 0–2 hole against the right-hander. As he did against the Padres and would later do against the Yankees, Harper showed bunt on the two-strike offering but pulled back when Estrada’s changeup bounced in the dirt.
What makes this sequence against the Blue Jays a little more peculiar is that unlike other situations where Harper has shown bunt with two strikes, it doesn’t appear that it was because of a two-strike shift implemented by the defense. When Harper showed bunt with two strikes against the Padres, he didn’t have the opportunity to bunt to beat the shift earlier in the count because Spangenberg had been in on the grass until Harper had two strikes on him. The same goes for Harper’s foul bunt against the Yankees last week.
There wasn’t a definitive shot of Toronto’s infield alignment before Harper showed bunt, but throughout the series it didn’t appear that Donaldson was staying in on the grass to take the bunt away. There was the example earlier when we saw Donaldson moving back toward the outfield grass after Harper’s bunt attempt and there’s also this shot from the series finale, right before Harper doubled down the right-field line on a 1–0 pitch.
In other words, if Harper wanted to bunt to beat the shift, he could have done it earlier in the count. Instead, he waited until there were two strikes to square around against Estrada. One possible explanation could be that Harper saw himself in an 0–2 hole and recognized that he was less likely to reach base swinging away than he was earlier in the count. After all, Harper is the owner of a .523 OPS after an 0–2 count in his career.
The primary goal of bunting to beat the shift is taking the easy hit when the defense gives it to you, but one of additional benefits of beating the shift is the modified defensive alignments that often follow after a player establishes himself as a threat to bunt. Optimal defensive shifting against left-handers is not just about the three fielders stacked on one side of the infield but the fourth infielder who can cover ground up the middle and toward the area where the shortstop would traditionally be positioned. Using Harper as an example, take a look at not only the groundballs that he’s pulled over the past two years, but also at the number of grounders hit up the middle or to the shortstop area. If a fourth fielder is able to keep himself in the traditional shortstop position, the shift is going to be much more effective than if he has to stay at third base, where he’s essentially only taking away potential bunts (there are hardly any grounders down the third base line).
Harper’s aggressive bunting has kept some teams honest in this regard, as we’ve seen a number of clubs keep their third basemen close to the bag until two strikes. But that’s as far as I think we can anticipate teams modifying their shifts to account for a bunt against Harper. Neither the Padres nor Blue Jays altered their alignments even after Harper threatened to bunt with two strikes, showing that they were perfectly fine with letting him bunt to beat the shift with two strikes. It would be interesting to see whether teams would respond if Harper managed to lay down a couple of two-strike bunts, but given his skipper’s disapproval for the tactic, it doesn’t appear that we’ll ever get that chance.
However, as long as Harper continues to be aggressive in his bunt attempts when opposing defenses give him the opportunity, it’s unlikely that teams will be able to optimally position their infielders against him until they do get two strikes. In that sense, Harper has already won the early stages of his battle against the shift.
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