That teenager with the eye black in Washington is setting records as he blazes a trail through his rookie season, but today Bryce Harper broke a record that he may not brag about. In seven plate appearances against the Yankees, the outfielder struck out five times. He becomes the youngest person to ever earn a platinum sombrero, and the first teenager. Does it matter?
In some ways, you could say no. Other young players that managed the same feat before they turned 25 include Sammy Sosa, Bo Jackson, George Foster, Scott Rolen, Adam Dunn and Reggie Jackson. Even Dick Allen did it when he was 22. It’s no harbinger of doom.
Still, you might notice something about that list. Not all of them had strikeout issues, but you might think that a list with Bo Jackson and his 30-plus percent strikeout rate might be strikeout heavy. There were 50 players that struck out more than five times in a game before they turned 25. Let’s leave players that haven’t played at least five full years in the big leagues out of this equation (and pitchers) — that leaves us with 43 players — and look at their career strikeout rates. Average them all out, and you get a 18.8% strikeout rate. 19.6% of all plate appearances are ending in a strikeout this year.
Even with that knowledge in hand, it’s tempting to worry about a young player like Harper striking out so many times in a game. After all, Harper has a double-digit swinging strike rate. We’ve tracked that rate since 2002, and the average strikeout rate of the 507 qualified batter-seasons that featured a double-digit swinging strike rate since then was… 20.63%. His worse-than-average whiff rate is also not a big deal, it seems.
And yet you might watch his swing and see a little bit of extra effort in it. In the 2010 Arizona Fall League, a scout told me that you could see the max-effort swing as a negative. If you wanted to. And if you paired that hard swing with some of his early strikeout rates (28.2% in rookie ball, and over 30% in the AFL), you might worry a tiny bit. Especially after he struck out five times in one game in his rookie season.
But if you look at baseball as a whole, Harper’s five-strikeout Saturday was just a blip. It doesn’t mean that he’ll have a bad strikeout rate in the future, even if you squint as hard as you can and try to find the negatives. Instead, call Saturday’s platinum feat just a really bad day and continue to be excited about this skilled young player.