John Kruk made a good point during a spring training broadcast last week on Bryce Harper and how opposing pitching staffs won’t change their approach against him despite having more protection in the lineup in the form of Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos.
“A lot of people [say] ‘Well with Schwarber and Castellanos, Bryce is going to get pitched … He’s going to get pitched to the same,” Kruk said during the first inning of a Phillies-Yankees spring training game. “He’s not going to get a first-pitch fastball down the middle.”
It’s true. No matter who is hitting around Harper, pitchers will tip-toe around the strike zone. The reigning MVP will likely finish in the top 10 in BB% like he has in each of the past four seasons. The drastic extent to which opposing teams pitch around him might change slightly. In 2021, his walk rate nearly doubled from the first half to the second half as the protection around him dwindled.
What should change this year is both the amount of opportunities he will get to hit with runners on and the skill level of hitters who will be tasked with making sure Harper scores when he gets on base.
Much has already been made about Andrew McCutchen and Odúbel Herrera’s collective struggles in the leadoff spot last season and how it dragged down Harper’s final RBI total and the offense as a whole. Unless Bryson Stott or Matt Vierling emerge as viable leadoff options this season, Schwarber is expected to hit in that spot. The Phillies could have a good problem on their hands if Schwarber goes on a power trip and leaves the bases empty for Harper, but the lefty should get on base quite a bit via the walk. The No. 2 spot is up for grabs as the trio of Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto or Rhys Hoskins could get at-bats in that spot.
There hasn’t been as much discussion on how poor the Phillies were at keeping any kind of rally going behind Harper.
Here’s a look at how the Phillies allocated plate appearances in the No. 4 and 5 spots in 2021.
Phillies No. 5 hitters ranked 27th in OPS with runners on in 2021. More than 500 plate appearances from the spot came from players who are either no longer on the team, in danger of not making the team or are expected to hit much lower in the lineup on a regular basis.
Castellanos is expected to hit cleanup and that could shift Hoskins to No. 5. All of Hoskins’ career plate appearances as a No. 5 hitter came in 2021. The spot suits him well in a small sample size.
If the Phillies offense plans on functioning at a high level, they’ll have to take advantage of Harper’s elite on-base skills and drive him in at a respectable rate, something they struggled to do in 2021.
In 2021, Harper doubled 29 times with less than two outs and came around to score only 11 times. There were eight instances last season in which Harper doubled with no outs and the Phillies failed to drive him in.
Since 2016, Castellanos ranks seventh in the majors in slugging percentage with runners on (min. 1,000 plate appearances). Castellanos was one of 20 players to drive in 100 runs last season. 2021 could very well be Castellanos’ peak season, but that doesn’t exclude him from being a middle-of-the-order bat the Phillies can count on to keep a rally going.
2008 marked the last season the Phillies had two hitters (Ryan Howard and Chase Utley) with 100 RBI seasons. Harper (2019) was the last Phillie to do so. With a lineup as stacked as the one the Phillies have, it’s possible that one or two (maybe three) of the team’s big bats have a chance to reach triple digits in RBIs.
It would be a far cry from where the offense was last year.
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