Olney: Is this the best Bryce Harper we've ever seen?


Bryce Harper took his batting practice indoors last season, and the explanation made a lot of sense. There is stuff that he wants to accomplish in each session, stuff he feels he needs to accomplish, and when he takes those pregame swings off the field, all the distractions are blocked out.

Cocooned inside the netting underneath the stands, there are no fans shouting to you — or at you. The reaction generated each time you launch a ball toward the stands is eliminated, which prevents you from being tempted to play to the crowd. No reporters can angle to intercept you in this area, which is off-limits to the media. It’s just you, your hitting coach and the task at hand; it’s just you and your work.

And maybe it’s less fun too. Before the Washington Nationals finished their weekend series against the New York Mets on Sunday, Harper was among his teammates taking batting practice out in the open, on the field. That’s something he has been doing this year.

“Maybe it’s because he feels better,” a teammate speculated with a shrug.

Harper should feel better — he should feel great — because the numbers suggest that the 2017 version of the slugger might be the best Bryce Harper we’ve seen — maybe even better than how he hit in 2015, when he won the National League MVP.

Harper’s batting average was .432, his on-base percentage .548. He had 26 runs, 22 RBIs and seven homers in Washington’s first 21 games.

But one layer deeper into his statistics, the numbers are even more remarkable.

His rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone is 23.9 percent, according to fangraphs, the lowest and best of his career.

The rate at which he is swinging and missing stands at 8.0 percent, the lowest and best of his career.

His rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone is at 92.1 percent, the highest and best of his career.

Adam Eaton is new to the Nationals this year, and as he explained in this interview Sunday, Harper is so well-prepared and now armed with enough experience that Eaton believes the slugger knows exactly what the pitcher is going to throw next — and when the ball is in the strike zone, Harper is not missing the pitch.

The numbers reflect this. Harper’s contact rates reflect this. His ratios of extra-base hits and walks to strikeouts early this season are shocking for a power hitter.

Last year, Joey Votto ranked among baseball’s best offensive players, and he had 65 extra-base hits, 108 walks and 120 strikeouts. David Ortiz, finishing his career with arguably his best season, had 87 extra-base hits, 80 walks and 86 strikeouts. Freddie Freeman led the National League with 83 extra-base hits, 89 walks and 171 strikeouts.

So far this season, Harper has 15 extra-base hits, 19 walks and 14 strikeouts. To put that into perspective: Harper is hitting at a pace that would take him to 116 extra-base hits, 147 walks and 108 strikeouts.

Eaton’s observations are similar to what other players said about Barry Bonds: Through his body language, you could tell what pitch Bonds anticipated, and he saw the ball so well that even before it reached the home plate area, his body would relax.

Harper will inevitably slump, of course, as all hitters do, and his production pace will slow. Last season, Harper had 15 extra-base hits, 17 walks and 13 strikeouts in April, before his production dropped and he finished the season with 46 extra-base hits, 108 walks and 117 strikeouts.

But some teammates feel that Harper gleaned lessons from his struggles in 2016 that he will apply, as all great hitters do. Perspective can be so helpful.

Years ago, former Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino told the story of taking indoor batting practice in the offseason with a much younger Harper. It was January, months before the first pitch of the season, and Harper was totally locked into the work, as Victorino recalled, which is a compliment from Victorino, a human cappuccino who speaks about 3,000 words per minute.

As Victorino watched from outside the cage, Harper swung viciously pitch to pitch, driving the ball into the protective netting. Based on the trajectory of each line drive, Harper loudly called out a projection of what each ball would be: Double! Single! Home Run!

This was batting practice. Indoors. In January.

When the session was over, Victorino mentioned to Harper that he might want to ease up just a bit. The baseball season is long, and the work of batting practice can seem endless, especially if you make it that way. It can be joyless, especially if you are a perfectionist and the only acceptable outcome is greatness, and the grind can swallow you whole.

In 2017, Harper has escaped to the great outdoors again, feeling better, hitting better than ever.

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