Jul 1, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper (34) touches home plate after hitting a home run in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Will Yasiel Puig or Bryce Harper Have the Better Second Half?

The Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers will meet up for an intriguing weekend series starting Friday. A few months ago, this series had that “wow” effect.

The Nationals and Dodgers were some of the most common picks to come out of the National League by pundits and analysts across the nation. They both made big free-agent splashes in the offseason–Los Angeles got started a little early by adding Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto in an August trade with the Boston Red Sox.

What comes to mind when you think of these two teams now? Disappointment is the most commonly used word. Frustration and underachievers are up there too. Words of that variety, pretty much.

Give the Dodgers some credit, though. They’ve won 15 of their last 20 and 19 out of their last 30, propelling them to second place. Still, they’re an even 47-47. That wasn’t a ratio that management had in mind while investing $214 or so million a star-studded core, but it could’ve been a lot worse.

The Nationals, meanwhile, are a not-much-better 48-47, good for a spot six games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves. They’ve been neither really bad or really good, with a losing streak of four and a winning streak of five. Overall: “meh,” when it should be “wow.”

Jul 16, 2013; Flushing, NY, USA; National League outfielder Bryce Harper (34) of the Washington Nationals reacts during the 2013 All Star Game at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the details are cleared up, it’s time to talk Yasiel Puig and Bryce Harper, which is always a fun conversation. Two budding stars. Two exciting players. Two players who aren’t afraid of collisions with the wall. I like to call that entertainment at its finest.

The question for today: who will have a better second half?

Going off of their latest stretches, Puig would be the answer. They are both struggling, or in Puig’s case, cooling off is the better way to put that. He’s hitting to the tune of a .300/.333/.430 batting line in July. In normal context, that’s hardly “cooling off.” In context with the .436/.467/.713 line he had from June 3 to June 30, however, that’s indeed regression.

But a regression was inevitable. No one, and I mean no one, can sustain the .500 BABIP (batting average on balls in play). It just doesn’t happen, and it won’t.

There’s no way to sugarcoat Harper’s struggles, though. Since May 1, he has a .194/.323/.352 batting line to go along with a mere .215 BABIP. Perhaps he’s still shaking off some of the rust from a right knee bursitis injury which caused him to miss 31 games.

With neither Puig or Harper trending upwards, let’s dig in:

The State of Bryce Harper

I already noted Harper’s woes since he slashed .344/.430/.720 in April. At that time, he looked like an MVP candidate on a World Series contender. Just how the Nationals scripted it, right?

But boy, as you know by now, have the tables turned.

Harper’s problems can be chalked up to this: he’s not hitting breaking pitches, and thus, opposing pitchers are offering him nothing but breaking pitches (curveball, slider, knuckleball, slow curve)–maybe an exggaretation, but not by much.

Note: June is not tracked because Harper was on the DL

April: 28.5%

May: 23.7%

July: 33.8%

No, the uprising in breaking pitches isn’t a coincidence. Since May 1, Harper has a .200 average against curveballs, .046 mark against sliders and just to throw it in there because it’s an off-speed pitch, he’s hitting .158 against changeups.

Jul 11, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper (34) rounds third base as he attempts to score during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies defeated the Nationals 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Before May 1 (April 1-30), Harper was hitting .214 against curveballs, .200 against sliders and a much better .385 against changeups. So in the first month of the season, he was below average against breaking stuff (curveballs, sliders), but much better than he has been since the calendar flipped to May.

What does this mean for Harper?

Opposing pitchers are going to offer him nothing break breaking pitches until he adjusts. I know he can hit a fastball (10.6 wFB in 2012), and you probably do too. And you better be sure that the scouts know that he can hit the heater. After all, most major leaguers can hit a fastball. So there’s no concern in that regard, except for the fact that he’s going to see less of them.

As for the specific location Harper is struggling with…

The youngster’s weak spot is low and generally away with breaking pitches. More of those breaking pitches caught the middle of the plate in April, but lately, it’s been away, away and more away.

This isn’t an approach that we haven’t seen before, as breaking pitches down in the zone aren’t are easy to handle. The break, combined with the location isn’t going to yield a ton of home runs either, so there’s a lot to like about the approach.

As I alluded to above: “until the hitter adjusts.” That’s something that Harper hasn’t done but will have to do to get back on track, and for the sake of this argument, beat out Puig for the better second-half player.

The State Of Yasiel Puig

If we’re going off raw stats, Puig would be the obvious pick. Even with a dip in production, he’s still slashing .391/.422/.616 in 38 games this year, whereas Harper has a .264/.371/.522 slash line. But with the short sample size, comparing the two off purely stats will conjure a skewed comparison, and that’s not what for aiming for.

However, Puig and Harper have both had their weak spots identified and noted. We know that Harper struggles against breaking stuff down in the zone, and now Puig’s on the hot spot.

I’ll start by stating the obvious: Puig’s a free-swinger. His O-Swing% (41.8) would rank fourth in MLB if he qualified, but that’s merely a piece of the puzzle.

Jul. 8, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA: Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The problem with a high O-Swing% is, yeah, it’s hit-or-miss. Some select players can wave at everything and still hit for a decent average and some can’t. Puig was the former from June 3 to June 30. It didn’t matter where the ball was pitched, he was going to hit it. His even .500 BABIP and, well, everything else can confirm that.

Lately, Puig hasn’t been making as much contact with pitches outside of the zone. His O-Contact% has dropped from 63.4 percent in his first 26 games to 42.2 percent in his last 12 games, and his numbers have thus nosedived to a cool .300 average.

If you dial up Puig’s Brooks Baseball profile, you’ll get some visuals. You should notice the amount of pitches he was seeing in the zone from June 3 (his debut) to June 30. Lots of red, right? But from July 1 to July 15? Not so much. A few select squares are partially red, but there aren’t any with a solid red shade, at least not in the strike zone–and that’s the point.

And for Puig, this trend isn’t going to change. Pitchers will continue to throw pitches vastly out of the strike zone, hoping for him to swing, because that’s been the most successful attack against him. His major flaw–overaggressiveness–has been exposed.

I will give you this: the sample sizes are a bit imbalanced. But what I’m pondering upon the future effects of the more than 20-percent decrease in the pitches he’s making contact with outside of the zone.

Verdict: Harper has the better second falf

Hear me out on this one, Dodgers fans.

We now know that both Harper and Puig are amid down spirals. It then just comes down to which one has the better chance of breaking out of their slump sooner, and I’d lean towards Harper.

And my reasoning is simple: To bet back on track, Puig might have to change his entire approach. In other words, he might have to stray from his free-swinging habits, and that’s hardly something one can do on the spot, especially for Puig, who’s known to have been a free-swinger long before he arrived in the Major Leagues.

It’s essentially breaking a habit, but increasingly harder, because it’s not, say, biting your fingernails. Rather, it’s laying off 95 mph fastballs regularly.

Harper, on the other hand, simply has to work on one pitch that’s down in the zone, and that can be fixed by simply laying off of it, if it’s a strike. Easier said than done, obviously. There’s a reason why Harper’s struggling to hit the low breaking stuff, and has been for a while. Of course pitchers will re-adjust on Haprer, but he would have solved his biggest undoing.

So, tell me which change is easier?

My vote would be for Harper.

*All stats and chart references courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference and Brooks Baseball

Tags: Bryce Harper Los Angeles Dodgers Washington Nationals Yasiel Puig

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