Bryce Harper’s Game 5 Home Run was a masterclass in hitting

Bryce Harper’s Game 5 Home Run was a masterclass in hitting

Bryce Harper
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Some call it a legacy at-bat. I think it’s one of the most impressive displays of pitch-to-pitch adjustments I’ve ever seen in a postseason game. However you want to describe it, all that matters is that Bryce Harper sent his team to the World Series after five games of leading the Phillies’ offense with stunning, historic hitting. If he hadn’t already proven the value of his contract with an MVP performance in 2021, he did in this series, chewing up Padres pitching with eight hits in 20 at-bats, including two home runs, three doubles and five RBI.

I could go on about Harper’s postseason hitting forever, but for this piece I want to focus on his at-bat against Robert Suarez that gave Philadelphia the lead in the bottom of the eighth inning of the series victory. No one was better suited for that moment than the reigning MVP; after each pitch you could see him processing his swings, of which he took a lot, in preparation for the next. If there’s one thing a hitter needs in the postseason when facing elite pitching, it’s pitch-to-pitch adjustments. Allow me to walk you through how Harper made his.

Pitch 1

Hitters have struggled mightily against the Suarez slugger this year, with just a .139 batting average and not a single home run allowed. He usually attacks hitters with four-seam fastballs to start at-bats (47% of the time in 0-0 counts), but against Harper he opted for the sinker, his best pitch by run value (-7). The movement on this dive was just enough to dive under Harper’s barrel and give Suarez the 0–1 count advantage.

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Pitch 2

Trying to get the aggressive Harper to chase at the top of the 0-1 zone is a sensible strategy. After his big hack on the previous pitch, Suarez and Austin Nola knew Harper was chasing any fastball in the zone. Unfortunately for Suarez, this one ran a little too high and was not quite at eye level as the batters chase at the top of the zone.

Pitch 3

With the score tied at 1–1, Harper could have expected just about anything. Suarez wasn’t predictable in that situation all season, throwing his four-seamer and switch about 30% of the time to lefties and sinking just under 20%. However, the old adage still applies: Make the hitter hit your best.

This swing and pitch was almost identical to the first of the at-bat: a sinker up the middle that ran and dove just enough to miss Harper’s run. However, this placement was about an inch lower, and as a result, Harper only gained one more hair from it. In terms of localization, it is an area he handles quite well. Statcast labeled this pitch in Zone 4 – the outer and middle thirds for left-handed hitters. Harper had a .548 wOBA on pitches in this zone in games during the regular season. If you let him get his hands out, he will do damage.

That dive put Suarez ahead in the count once again despite two quality swings from Harper. And while Suarez loves his changeup when he’s ahead in the count against lefties, Harper had to be ready for anything.

Pitch 4

This is perfect execution by Suarez. If you’re going back to the four-seamer, make sure it’s on the edge or out of the zone. Harper is usually disciplined in this area, but he was in full protection mode in this fight; while he was a tick late on his fastball, he didn’t let a borderline pass and fouled off three straight offerings.

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If you notice the end of the clip, you see Harper take the top of his bottom hand and guide it toward the pitcher’s mound — an example of the hitter calculating the feel of his swing and using an internal cue to get back on track. An internal cue is a saying and/or feeling that a batsman uses to direct a specific body movement; every batsman has different cues that help them. Harper’s cue senses the bottom hand reaching out so the barrel can advance in front of the plate. Heading into the 1–2 repeat, Harper wanted to make this adjustment to catch up with the heater.

Pitch 5

Still just a foul ball, but it’s an improvement from the previous three swings. Harper shortened up, got the barrel head out further and fouled this to the left instead of straight back. It was another well-executed pitch from Suarez in the bottom of the zone, but as I mentioned earlier, Harper was in protected mode and wasn’t going to let a close pitch sneak past him.

That’s two straight 1-2 count fastballs. This had to be the time for Suarez’s nasty change, right?

Pitch 6

At 91.5 mph, Suarez’s changeup had about six to seven mph of velocity separation from his fastballs in this at-bat. But that wasn’t enough to fool Harper. Even in swing mode and despite a career-high 35.5% catch rate this season, he saw this perfectly executed pitch well enough to spit on it without hesitation. From Suarez’s point of view, this perception is worrying. Harper had been on the fastball enough all at bat to warrant off-speed below the zone, but letting this pitch go by was a sign not to throw it again; if the next change lands in the strike zone, you’re in serious trouble.

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Suarez didn’t have to go back to the heater, but if you really read swings and takes, there’s no way you’re going back to the changeup. As this at bat developed, Harper only looked better. The key for Suarez was to return to his best pitch and execute it as well as he could.

Pitch 7

Now there is a master class in hitting. At 98.9 mph, Suarez threw his fastest sinker at the batter, but six fastballs spread over seven pitches proved enough for Harper to feel his bottom hand get further into the strike zone and deliver a monumental swing and home run.

The very best hitters make pitch-to-pitch adjustments like we saw here from Harper. But not a single hitter in the sport was able to do what Harper did here: hit a home run off a Robert Suarez sinker. Much respect to one of the best hitters of this generation.

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