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Bryce Harper Finds Comfort at First Base

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

First base defense is complicated. It's not one of the most difficult positions, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its challenges. Players in the latter part of their games who have lost their athleticism sometimes take this position as their new home, which is interesting because it is very difficult to learn a new position when you are past your athleticism. But because first base doesn't require high-level running, that rarely happens. The case of Bryce Harper is a perfect example of this.

Between Philadelphia's crowded backfield and its interest in keeping its star healthy as he celebrates turning 30, first baseman became a viable option for the former MVP when the position opened and he is coming back from Tommy John surgery in record time. Last year, he handled it well — even if at times he ran too far off the bag to find grounders in the hole, like he was back in right field trying to cut the ball in the gap — because he was learning the position. flying.

It was a bet on Harper's baseball skills and IQ that seems to have paid off. His defensive metrics look solid in 2023 (+3 OAA); Of course, considering the small sample, we shouldn't take these numbers as a guarantee, but they were encouraging nonetheless. Now, with a full season to learn the position and a month of games, we have a better idea of ​​what his true talent is at the position. Later in this article, we'll watch Harper's first play video to check where he stands. But first, let's look at the numbers.

So far in his first base career, Harper has a +6 OAA and an Added Success Rate between three and four percent. His OAA this season is +3, the highest among first basemen. Basically, the numbers showed that Harper still has a solid foundation, and with more experience, he's still one of the top defenders at his position.

Throughout this clip, we'll use video to break down Harper's handling of three key aspects of the position: his footwork on unassisted ground balls, his feed and feel for throws, and his outfield opportunities. the second time. There are other factors that go into starting defense – such as catching attempts, getting scoops, and receiving cutoffs before delivering a pass – but I really like his ability to play low balls. With that said, let's start by looking at the grounders that were close enough to the bag for Harper to make an unassisted putout:

Unassisted Ground Balls

Two things come to mind right away: Harper is good at working from the ground up, and he almost always keeps his body moving in the right direction. Any shortstop can tell you that slowly moving your feet and body weight toward your target when fielding the ball is important. The same base holds the first baseman.

With a slow chopper, you have to stagger your feet to make sure you stay in control and don't overplay the baseball and get a bad hop. When working toward the first base line, as Harper did so well, you balance how hard the ball is hit and the angle you're taking it at; on hard balls, you line up your body to protect against a deep chopper, and when a deep chopper comes, you redirect your center of gravity to the bag to make sure you're ready for a race and runner or throw. in the barrel. Harper seems very comfortable making these decisions. I snuck a line from Matt Olson in there to show how quick he can be on his feet. Not all first basemen can go that way. Now, let's move on to the most difficult task: flipping to the pitcher.

Turns to Pitcher

Harper did well to stick to the basics here. He has an established rhythm with Zack Wheeler in particular, but his execution of leading each pitcher to the bag is on point. He keeps his composure on every pitch, even when the runner is running like Elly De La Cruz. Haste and speed are important factors in fielding grounders at first because you can get caught in a foot race with the runner. But if you are consistent with your delivery and have a good sense of speeding up your arm when needed, there is no need to speed up your feet.

I was impressed with Harper's ability to make plays to his right. He uses his right foot to plant or spin very well. That has a lot to do with his athleticism. He gets into good positions to stay under the baseball and make reads with his hands. The following clips highlight that even more:

May Play to Second

There are three different moves you can make as a right handed thrower when you decide to bring fire to the second base from the first base positions (shallow, medium, deep) – you can rotate towards your throwing shoulder to square your body with the bag, you can rotate towards your forehand and non-throwing shoulder to square your body , or you can do a throw while running. Apparently Harper feels that those three steps.

On the grounder hit by Olson, Harper's footwork is good as he twists, turns, and throws, and his delivery is on the right side of second base. Then in the same game (the third game), he realizes that he has no way to bowl and decides to take out the guarantee at first. On a hard ball from Mike Trout, Harper changes his feet very quickly (like a catcher would) and brings the ball over the bag. The only hiccup comes on the last play of the clip, when he gets a ground ball near the outfield and decides to catch it instead of spinning it to second. If he goes to second instead, the Phillies have a shot at a game-ending double play. This is something to keep your eyes on as Harper continues to improve at the position. It is the longest throw to be made by a first baseman and requires a quick decision. He's obviously comfortable making throws from shallow depth, but this last piece will help him be more complete in the area.

In general, I'm impressed with how comfortable the Phillies slugger is as he navigates his new position. His basics are on point. He can get out of the bag quickly after catching a runner and check his feet to go anywhere. Even if he makes a mistake, it's not because he doesn't prepare himself on his feet. This may not be a Mookie Betts-level replacement, but it's still worth noting.

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