Where Bryce Harper Was Still Elite

Bryce Harper just had a down season. That seems like a weird thing to write about someone who played to a 112 wRC+, but when you’re coming off a Bondsian .330/.460/.649 season, a line of .243/.373/.441 seems pedestrian. Would most major-league baseball players like to put up a batting line that’s 12% better than average? Yes (by definition). But based on his 2015 season, we didn’t expect “slightly above average” from Bryce Harper. We expected “world-beating.” We didn’t quite get it, but there’s one thing he is still amazing at — no one in the National League can work the count quite like him.

We all know what “working the count” means, in a general sense. Even if you’ve played Little League, you know that there are ball-strike counts that are better for hitters, and there are those that are better for pitchers. So even before you get into any details about hitting, you know you’d rather be hitting in a 2-and-0 count than an 0-and-2 count. A basic way to quantify this is with run values, which we’ll crib from John Walsh (reading that article is highly recommended):

Run Value by Count
Count Batting Runs
0-0 0.000
1-0 0.038
2-0 0.104
3-0 0.220
0-1 -0.044
1-1 -0.015
2-1 0.037
3-1 0.142
0-2 -0.106
1-2 -0.082
2-2 -0.039
3-2 0.059
SOURCE: John Walsh

So, if we want to quantify how good someone is at working the count, we can just look at all the counts a batter was in over the course of a year, and add up the batting runs corresponding to these counts. I don’t know what to call this statistic, but it does appear to be a repeatable skill (click through for an interactive version, to find out which point corresponds to which player).

Your eyes are probably telling you there’s a weak correlation, and R-squared agrees with you, giving a value of 0.44. Clearly there are a few standouts — here’s a table showing the top 10 performers in 2016.

Count Batting Run Leaders, 2016
Name Count Batting Runs
David Ortiz 19.835
Carlos Santana 17.563
Bryce Harper 15.262
Joey Votto 11.763
Jose Bautista 8.833
Matt Joyce 8.463
Ben Zobrist 5.82
Yasmani Grandal 5.562
Francisco Cervelli 4.236
Kyle Seager 3.608

First — it’s good that this passes the smell test. If you had to come up with batters with great batting eyes, you would probably pick some of these names. Second — you can see a huge drop-off here, which is also visible in the scatter plot. Third — holy $#@!, David Ortiz.

But fourth, if you’re looking for a good reason to be hopeful about Bryce Harper, look no further. To get a little more intuitive feel for this number, let’s make a tabular comparison of all the counts Bryce Harper faced with the counts Alcides Escobar (the guy in the bottom left of the scatter plot) faced in 2016.

Number of pitches in a given count, Bryce Harper vs. Alcides Escobar
Count Harper Escobar
0-0 627 686
1-0 308 224
2-0 151 55
3-0 70 14
0-1 248 370
1-1 232 266
2-1 162 112
3-1 83 30
0-2 116 190
1-2 205 257
2-2 215 178
3-2 130 77
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Similar number of at-bats, similar number of pitches seen, but boy, do the similarities end there. Harper faced three times as many 2-and-0 counts and four times as many 3-and-0 counts as Escobar, while seeing about half the 0-and-2 counts. Now, you can succeed while not facing decent counts — Starling Marte, he of the 121 wRC+ in 2016, ran a -26 in this statistic — but if you can avoid it, you’re giving yourself a leg up.

This probably doesn’t mean anything of real value. We’ve basically figured out batting statistics at this point, so there’s no reason to create a new one. But one thing that is clear is that Bryce Harper has an elite skill that few other major leaguers have. I guess we’ll find out if it means anything for his overall offensive output in 2017.

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The Kudzu Kid does not believe anyone actually reads these author bios.

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Well, I have no idea what this means either, but it’s still fascinating. Great work.


This is really interesting, but one thing to consider what it means that a pitcher is much more likely to challenge Alcides with a 2-0 pitch than Bryce. You could imagine also that the players with better results might be the ones that have worse line-up protection. It would be interesting to see the stat removing any value gained by walking.


This seems like an approximation of OBP, no? All the leaders seems to be high on base percentage guys. Interesting read nonetheless. Big Papi?!? He will be missed.