Bryce Harper's struggles are largely tied to shifts, but don't expect them to last

In Toronto, Marco Estrada and three Blue Jays relievers combined for a three-hit shutout of the Nationals. In that sense, no one in a Washington uniform was really hitting on this day. For Bryce Harper, though, it's a continuation of his recent struggles. 

Harper hit for power in May but ran a sub-.300 OBP for the month. Moreover, Harper had a line of .179/.289/.256 for the month of June coming into Saturday's game with 18 strikeouts against just four walks. Then against the Jays he went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.

For the season, Harper's now batting .221/.361/.489 on the year. Those are good numbers overall -- thanks to his power and walks -- but consider that Harper had an OPS of more than 1.000 as recently as May 6. Now that figure is down to .850. As well, his NL-leading eight intentional walks are helping prop up his fading numbers. 

Is there hope for improvement? Possibly. Right now, Harper is running a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .216, and that's compared to a career BABIP of .316. The huge difference suggests that Harper may be the victim of some bad luck and or very good opposing defense.

As well, Harper's rate of hard-hit balls is at career-high levels, just as his rate of weakly hit balls is at a career-low rate. This season, he also boasts an average exit velocity that's comfortably higher than the league average. All of that portends improvement for Harper. 

Now let's look at infield overshifts. Here's how often Harper was shifted through June 16 of this year versus last year ... 

Year (through June 16) PAs analyzed Shifted PAs Shift percentage
2017 192 122 63.5
2018 222 204 91.9

As you can see, that's a drastic uptick in how often Harper has been shifted. Now some numbers relevant to this increased tendency to shift against Harper ... 

  • Harper from 2017 to 2018 has increased his percentage of pulled grounders from 46.9 to 61.8. 
  • Harper from 2017 to 2018 has seen his batting average on ground balls fall from .346 to .176

Yes, he's probably in for better days no matter what he does, but he also looks like a hitter who needs to adjust to those overshifts. You can do that by dropping down some bunts in the name of game theory, focusing more on elevating the ball, or trying to reign in those pull tendencies. Easier said than done on all counts. 

Harper's long been something of a streaky hitter, and he's played through injury before to the detriment of his numbers. Whatever's going on, he's in a bad way right now. That's probably not good for his pending free agency, and it's certainly not good for the Nationals' designs on repeating as NL East champs. The good news is that Harper's probably going to improve, and with some adjustments he could improve significantly. 

CBS Sports Writer

Dayn Perry has been a baseball writer for CBS Sports since early 2012. Prior to that, he wrote for FOXSports.com and ESPN.com. He's the author of three books, the most recent being Reggie Jackson: The... Full Bio

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