At 100 career homers, Bryce Harper shows signs of getting even better
On Thursday against the Braves, Bryce Harper hit the 100th home run of his young career, and the Nationals' rightfielder reached the milestone in style, crushing a fastball from Atlanta starter Julio Teheran 425 feet for his first career grand slam and taking out a chunk of the ribbon board on the face of Nationals Park’s second deck in rightfield in the process. In doing so, Harper became the eighth-youngest player to reach 100 home runs in major league history, beating Albert Pujols to the mark by four days and Mike Trout, who hit his 100th home run on April 17 of last year, by 72 days.
Here are the 10 youngest players to reach 100 career home runs in the majors, with Harper squeezing in behind Johnny Bench and just ahead of Pujols.
|Mel Ott||Giants||1930||2,259||22 years, 132 days|
|Tony Conigliaro||Red Sox||1967||1,945||22 years, 197 days|
|Eddie Mathews||Braves||1954||1,694||22 years, 292 days|
|Alex Rodriguez||Mariners||1998||2,078||23 years, 16 days|
|Andruw Jones||Braves||2000||2,218||23 years, 62 days|
|Miguel Cabrera||Marlins||2006||1,962||23 years, 127 days|
|Johnny Bench||Reds||1971||2,111||23 years, 161 days|
|Bryce Harper||Nationals||2016||2,176||23 years, 181 days|
|Albert Pujols||Cardinals||2003||1,762||23 years, 185 days|
|Hank Aaron||Braves||1957||2,325||23 years, 191 days|
Of those ten, five went on to reach 500 home runs, and Cabrera, currently at 409, should make it six. Pujols, currently at 560 and signed through 2021, stands an excellent chance of joining Aaron and Rodriguez with more than 600 home runs, and Rodriguez, at 688, could very well join Aaron, the former career leader with 755, in the 700 home run club before the end of the season.
Five of the men on the list above are eligible for the Hall of Fame, and four of them have been inducted. The exception is Conigliaro, who was hit in the left eye by a pitch less than a month after hitting his 100th home run in the first game of a double-header on July 23, 1967 and never fully recovered. Of the other five, Cabrera and Pujols are first-ballot locks, and Rodriguez is questionable only because of his history of performance-enhancing drug use. Jones, who will appear on the ballot for the first time in 2018, falls just shy of the JAWS standard at his position, but he would be a deserving inductee if elected and seems likely to get in eventually.
That’s tremendous company for Harper, though there are certainly a few precautionary tales among them. Conigliaro is the most obvious one, a reminder that the future is guaranteed to no one and that injuries can destroy even the most promising careers (of the ten men above, only Mathews and Pujols reached 100 home runs in fewer plate appearances than he did). Rodriguez is another: One of the greatest players the game has ever seen, he destroyed his own reputation through performance-enhancing drug use seemingly borne out of deep-seated insecurity. Jones suffered a dramatic decline as soon as he reached his thirties and was out of the majors after his age-35 season, proof that even great players need to remain diligent in keeping their bodies and skills in shape. Bench’s early decline is typical of a catcher, but by his own admission, he was never the same after having surgery to remove a fungal lesion from his lung after winning his second and final MVP award in his age-24 season. Mathews also had an early decline and retirement, making just 57 plate appearances in his final season at the age of 36—an exit some blamed on his heavy drinking.
Nonetheless, Harper, who last year became the youngest unanimous MVP in major league history, has once again placed his name among those of the game’s all-time greats. What’s more, as was the case last year, there are early indications this season that Harper has taken yet another significant step forward at the plate.
Harper led the NL with 42 home runs last year at 22 years old, but the most notable aspect of his production was the spike in his walk rate last April. In his first three seasons, Harper drew walks in 10.4% of his plate appearances, including 9.6% of them in 2014. In April 2015, he more than doubled that rate to 22%. Five intentional passes helped, but even without those, he walked in 17.9% of his plate appearances that month compared to 9.9% of plate appearances that didn’t result in an intentional walk in the previous three seasons. That improvement in plate discipline heralded Harper’s MVP performance, as he maintained that improved discipline throughout the season and drew 124 walks (109 unintentional), second only to Joey Votto in the majors, and posted a .460 on-base percentage, the highest by a qualified batter in either league since Pujols’s .462 in 2008.
This year, Harper has further refined his approach at the plate, this time by reducing his strikeouts. Harper struck out in 21% of his plate appearances through his first four seasons, including 20% last year. In 2016, however, he has struck out just three times in 35 plate appearances, or 8.6%. What's more, his contact rate (the percentage of swings that make any kind of contact with a pitch) is up to 81.6% from 73.6% in his first four years. Part of the reason for those improvements is that Harper is showing even more patience than he did a year ago. His walk rate remains at 20%, but he is swinging at fewer pitches (40.2%, down from 44.6% last year and 50.9% in 2014) and making more contact when he does swing. Of particular note, Harper has swung at a pitch outside of the strike zone half as often this year (14.1%) as he did last year (28.0%, already a career low).
Harper’s OPS (1.079) and OPS+ (178) heading into Friday’s action are very close to last year’s marks (1.109 and 195, respectively), but he has put up those numbers despite lousy luck on balls in play. Harper had a .362 BABIP over the last two years combined; in the early going this year, it is a mere .182. His production so far has been almost entirely in the form of extra-base hits (three doubles and three home runs) and walks (seven). Given yet another dramatic improvement in his approach at the plate, it’s frightening to think of what his numbers might look like once those singles start dropping in. Harper may be one of the youngest players ever to reach 100 home runs in the major leagues, but we still have only a small sense of how good he can be.