When Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis went down with an injury, he was replaced by prospect Will Middlebrooks, who was getting his first-ever major-league experience. In Youkilis' absence, Middlebrooks has torn it up, and the offense hasn't missed a beat. Youkilis spoke about Middlebrooks' early success In the Providence Journal. From Tim Britton:
"It looks like he's developing into a pretty good hitter. Plate discipline's big at the major-league level because guys will throw a lot of junk, especially now going forward. I think a lot more offspeed's coming. That's the big thing. I don't think that's a problem he's going to have."
On average, about 63 percent of all pitches are fastballs. Middlebrooks, to date, has seen about 69 percent fastballs. Youkilis is probably right - an adjustment is probably coming. Eventually. Middlebrooks will be tested.
Before the 2011 season, Baseball America ranked its top-100 prospects in baseball, as it always does. You can check out the history of their lists here. Ranking number three was then-Yankees catcher prospect Jesus Montero. Ranking number two was Angels outfielder prospect Mike Trout. Ranking number one was Nationals outfielder prospect Bryce Harper.
Harper debuted in the majors weeks ago. Both Montero and Trout debuted last season. Montero came to the plate 69 times in a Yankees uniform. He hit the ball exceptionally well. He saw about 66 percent fastballs. One could say that pitchers wanted to see if he could take the heat before going to more offspeed stuff. I don't know if that would be true, but one could certainly say that.
Trout came to the plate 135 times in an Angels uniform. He struggled to produce, and he saw about 66 percent fastballs. At first, he batted 47 times in July, and he saw about 68 percent fastballs. You could say the same thing there that you could've said about Montero.
Harper is weeks into his big-league career. It feels like just yesterday he was oblivious to getting mooned in Dodger Stadium before his first-ever hit. It's all about firsts right now for Bryce Harper. First hit. First outfield assist. First intentional beanball. First home run. You might think that Harper would be treated similar to the way that Montero and Trout were treated when they were brand-new. That hasn't been the case.
So far, Harper has stood in for about 51 percent fastballs. I'll remind you here that the average is around 63 percent. There have been 321 batters in baseball who've come to the plate at least 50 times. Harper's fastball rate ranks sixth-lowest. It's not so much about the people he's between - that fastball rate ranks him between Alfonso Soriano and Scott Hairston. Hardly a remarkable sandwich. It's more about how Harper has been subjected to offspeed stuff right away.
And while we're here, I'll note that Harper has seen about 41 percent of pitches in the strike zone, according to PITCHfx. Out of that same 321-player pool, Harper's zone rate ranks eighth-lowest, between Matt Holliday and Daniel Murphy. Harper has gone after a fair number of those pitches out of the zone, but I wouldn't say that his discipline has been problematic. For a 19-year-old, it's been outstanding.
Bryce Harper arrived in the majors as a teenager on April 28. Since his arrival, Harper has seen a very low rate of fastballs, and he's seen a very low rate of pitches in the strike zone. I think the conventional wisdom, whether right or wrong, is this is the sort of thing pitchers do to young prospects after they get through the initial fastball phase. Harper never had an initial fastball phase. Harper's getting the kitchen sink.
In a situation like this, all I can do is speculate, because I'm not sourced, and even if I were sourced, that wouldn't guarantee honest explanations. Teams and players lie all the time. And since I'm free to speculate, what I'm going to speculate is that Harper's reputation preceded him. I hate that expression but it was the first thing that came to mind. It was impossible for anybody not to know about Bryce Harper. It was impossible for anybody in the game not to know about his prodigious power at such an impossibly young age. It's hype, of course, but it's hype based on the reality that is Bryce Harper, and against a guy like that, why pound him with fastballs or strikes? He could punish fastballs or strikes. Even if he's a rookie, he could be among the game's most dangerous bats.
As the headline declares, I think this is the instant fear of Bryce Harper. That makes the pitchers sound more like cowards than I'd like, but people know how much Harper can do. They've known about it since well before Harper was drafted. The scouts said Harper was a prospect unlike other prospects; in the early going, he's been treated like a prospect unlike other prospects. He's been shown respect, or at least he hasn't been shown disrespect. Except for that one time Cole Hamels hit him with a pitch on purpose. That was disrespectful. That pitch was also a fastball. It's one of relatively few fastballs Bryce Harper has seen.
Now that we know Harper's going to be around all year long, it's going to be fun to track his progress, and to track the way he's approached. It doesn't really matter where you look, or if you're even trying; somehow, some way, the Bryce Harper experience will pique your interest. As suggested by the evidence presented above, Harper's different. And Harper is great for the game.