What could Bryce Harper’s April lead to?

As we head into the games on Saturday, the Washington Nationals hold the best record in the Majors at 16-7 (.696).

Whilst Ryan Zimmermann’s outstanding April catches the eye after a poor 2016 season, the figurehead for the Nationals’ great start once again has been Bryce Harper.

He’s hitting .405 /.519/.786 with 8 home runs through the first 23 games and if you had him down as your prediction to be the National League MVP this season, there’s reason to be confident that he’ll prove you right.

However, when I saw him at the top of FanGraphs’ WAR position player leaderboard, my first though was ‘didn’t he does this last year?’

This is Harper’s monthly breakdown from 2016:

Month BA OBP SLG OPS HR
April/March 0.290 0.410 0.710 1.120 9
May 0.200 0.420 0.360 0.790 4
June 0.280 0.380 0.420 0.800 3
July 0.180 0.300 0.320 0.620 4
August 0.310 0.400 0.540 0.930 3
Sept/Oct 0.210 0.330 0.320 0.650 1

In a sense the answer is ‘yes’ as he launched a load of home runs, but his strong batting line in April 2016 pales in comparison to the ridiculous numbers he has this year.

Looking at that table though, what stands out is how April was his best month. There was plenty of talk of potential injuries that Harper was playing through last season, so the next question to ask is whether last year was just a one-off?

The following provides Harper’s batting lines over his career so far per month (I’ve left out HR’s as April would understandably be boosted by his 2017 total compared with the other months).

Month BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 0.324 0.431 0.638 1.069
May 0.264 0.405 0.545 0.950
June 0.304 0.387 0.505 0.892
July 0.236 0.344 0.393 0.737
August 0.286 0.376 0.482 0.858
Sept/Oct 0.290 0.384 0.518 0.901

The first thing to note is that he doesn’t exactly get into a slump at any point, although he looks mortal in July for some reason, but the stats show that April has been his best month and that he hasn’t matched his start the rest of the year. His 2017 numbers boost the April line too, of course, but the trend is there regardless.

The MLB season is a 162 marathon and we hear a lot about how the games, and heat, catch up with everyday players as the season goes on, so it’s worth considering if this is a more general trend. Firstly, we can look at the other great young position player in the Majors, Mike Trout.

Month BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 0.305 0.391 0.558 0.948
May 0.306 0.386 0.568 0.955
June 0.349 0.431 0.605 1.036
July 0.319 0.413 0.610 1.022
August 0.289 0.401 0.525 0.926
Sept/Oct 0.280 0.413 0.511 0.924

Although his batting average goes down in August and September (again, down is relative here), his on-base percentage is higher and there’s certainly not the clear difference we see with Harper’s numbers.

Trout and Harper may be linked as the two great players of their generation, yet they’re not identical hitters so let’s complete the research by looking at batting lines across the whole of the Majors in 2016.

Month BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 0.249 0.319 0.405 0.724
May 0.255 0.319 0.414 0.733
June 0.263 0.328 0.432 0.760
July 0.252 0.318 0.413 0.730
August 0.259 0.323 0.428 0.751
Sept/Oct 0.253 0.322 0.411 0.733

We’re bringing together a total of 184,580 plate appearances here and the averages, by their nature, will smooth out the exceptions, so this doesn’t show that Harper is unique in hitting better in April, but it does show there isn’t a wider trend that this is part of.

However, there has been one notable season from Harper in which he didn’t peak in April: 2015.

Month BA OBP SLG OPS HR
April/March 0.286 0.440 0.545 0.985 5
May 0.360 0.495 0.884 1.379 13
June 0.370 0.452 0.691 1.143 6
July 0.300 0.440 0.575 1.015 5
August 0.327 0.460 0.449 0.909 2
Sept/Oct 0.333 0.469 0.747 1.216 11
Season 0.330 0.460 0.649 1.109 42

There was no drop-off from April there, in fact he went bananas in May with 13 homers. Harper does tend to get into home run grooves – as do most power hitters – but when you can hit two homers in a month and still put up an OPS of .900, as he did in August, it goes to show that he is much more than ‘just’ a home-run hitter.

Harper’s 2015 season won him an MVP award. He’s going to have a post-April tail-off this year because he’s hit .405 /.519/.786 in April (with a couple of games to go) and you can tail off quite a bit and still put together a great season.

Yet his other-worldly start does make me excited for what numbers Harper could put up this season and what that could mean for the promotion of baseball.

Harper is exactly the sort of player who could grab the attention of sports fans in countries that don’t currently concentrate much on baseball.

Even if his performances on the field don’t quite manage that, the contract he signs when he becomes a free agent at the end of next season certainly will.

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