The Washington Nationals finished off a weather-shortened three-game series sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies Thursday night. The Phillies are in a bit of a swoon, having lost eight of their last 13 games. That stretch isn’t so arbitrary as it might seem—Andrew McCutchen succumbed to a season-ending knee injury 14 games ago. The loss of McCutchen has left the Phillies with a very specific problem that they have now reached the flailing stages of trying to solve.
McCutchen, you see, was batting leadoff for the Phillies, and doing a fine job of it. Prior to his injury, he’d amassed a .378 on-base percentage and an .835 OPS, with 10 home runs and 35 runs batted in. The Phillies gave first crack at the vacant leadoff spot to second baseman César Hernández, who was batting a healthy .283 on June 5, the day he took over for McCutchen at the top of the order. In seven games batting leadoff, Hernández went 2-for-27 with one extra-base hit and three walks. Next to try the gig was shortstop Jean Segura, who was batting .284 on June 14, the day he shifted into the leadoff spot. In five games batting leadoff, Segura went 2-for 20 with zero extra-base hits and three walks.
This paragraph from ESPN puts the situation in gruesomely clear statistical terms:
Since June 4, when Andrew McCutchen suffered a season-ending knee injury, Phillies leadoff hitters have ranked last in the MLB in batting average (.115), on-base percentage (.220), slugging percentage (.154) and OPS (.374). They also have only one extra-base hit in 13 games.
These are discrete little individual slumps in the grand scheme of a baseball season, but with the Phillies foundering, and with the team’s overall run production slipping to sub-Mets levels on the season, manager Gabe Kapler can be forgiven for moving on relatively quickly to the next option. Here is where the recent leadoff problems intersect with a more persistent and somehow even more glaring problem for the Phillies. Thursday night, in the final game of the Nationals series, Kapler shifted underperforming slugger Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot. The theory, here, was that Bryce’s tendency to work pitch counts would accrue to the benefit of the team overall, even if it might mean seeing fewer high-leverage at-bats. Per the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“The thought process is we feel like we’re a more successful club when we see pitches in the first inning,” Kapler said. “It doesn’t mean we have to get hits. It just means that we see some pitches. By having Harper and Hoskins at the top of the lineup, they don’t have to do anything different other than be who they normally are. And if that happens, we’re likely to see more pitches in the first inning.”
It’s worth noting that implicit in that description of Harper is a veiled indictment of his play this season. The Bryce Harper the Phillies paid a bazillion dollars for in the offseason is supposed to be a dominant slugger, an OPS machine who powers Philadelphia’s offense from the middle of the lineup. If that Bryce Harper is just being who he normally is, the Phillies would not need to shift players around to juice their offense in the first place. But the actual corporeal Bryce Harper of 2019 is not that. He entered Thursday night’s game batting just .243 on the season, with a measly .817 OPS, and as many home runs on the season as Howie Kendrick. He’d struck out an unfathomable 91 times, with fewer extra-base hits and a lower OPS than Jorge Soler. For this Bryce Harper, the only good thing he’s consistently doing is seeing lots of pitches—being who he normally is at the top of the lineup is the absolute least the Phillies can ask of him, a dismal and embarrassing retreat.
There’s more to this than Harper’s low power output and insane strikeout totals. Beyond his tendency to look at lots of pitches, a bizarre quirk of Harper’s plate production makes him a nonsensical choice as a leadoff guy. Per FanGraphs, Harper is batting a putrid, eyeball-searing .150 in 174 plate appearances with the bases empty this season, continuing a trend from 2018 when Harper hit a measly .214 with a whopping 111 strikeouts in 391 plate appearances with the bases empty. Whether this is due to problems with pitchers throwing from the windup or some glaring flaw in his approach—it’s probably more of the latter than the former, but a bit of both—it speaks to Kapler’s desperation to both solve his leadoff problem and wring extra value out of Harper’s spiraling production that he would move a shriekingly awful table-setter to the one spot where he is most likely to bat with no one on base.
Harper’s Phillies debut as a leadoff man was a good news-bad news event. The good news is, he did in fact see a bunch of pitches. Harper led off the game with a seven-pitch at-bat; he had an eight-pitch at-bat in the sixth inning; and a five-pitch at-bat in the ninth. In all he saw 24 pitches over five plate appearances, and knocked in a run with an RBI single in the fourth inning. The bad news is, in all other ways Harper was exactly who he has normally been this season. Those long at-bats all ended with strikeouts, and Harper finished 1–5 from the plate. He was also gunned out at home by former teammate Adam Eaton, ending a fourth-inning Phillies rally:
The season is far enough along now to say that Harper is having a bad one. Baseball Reference’s calculations put Harper on pace for something like 0.7 WAR this season. FanGraphs is a little more generous about how Harper’s performed this season, but even their calculations put him on pace for an unimpressive 2.3 WAR by season’s end, which would be the lowest of Harper’s career outside of his injury-shortened 2014 season. To put it mildly, this isn’t exactly what the Phillies thought they were buying.
It’s a shitty situation with no obvious solutions. While Harper is striking out at a historic rate and not hitting for much power, he doesn’t make a ton of sense in the heart of the Phillies’ lineup, but while he’s also utterly failing to even get on base against pitchers throwing out of the windup, he makes even less sense in the leadoff spot. So long as Kapler is experimenting with shifting him around in the lineup, it might not be the worst idea to do what managers normally do with light-hitting, low-average batters.