How to Strike Out Bryce Harper, Part 1 of 3: Picking The Brain of Top Phillies Prospect Jesse Biddle
Last season, I worked on a story that never came to fruition. That story was this: Only a handful of Minor League pitchers could one day tell their grandkids that they struck out teenage Bryce Harper phenom twice in one ballgame. Three of these hurlers, like Harper, just happened to be elite prospects as well. And each member of that trio, also like Harper (Nationals), were and still are in National League organizations – Jesse Biddle (Phillies), Drew Pomeranz (Rockies) and Matt Harvey (Mets) — meaning that one, two or all three could provide intriguing hitter-pitcher battles for years to come.
I spoke with each of these pitchers in 2012, before Pomeranz and Harvey joined Harper in the Majors. (Biddle, the No. 1 prospect in Philadelphia’s system at the end of ’12 and baseball’s fourth best LHP entering ’13, will likely begin next spring at Double-A Reading and is the only Minor Leaguer left.) For the first time, I will share those how-to-strike-out-Harper discussions with readers. Today, I reveal Biddle’s secrets. Expect Pomeranz’s on Thursday and Harvey’s on Friday, to complete this tardy three-part story that once was and now is.
Part 1 on Wednesday: Picking The Brain of The Phillies’ Jesse Biddle (Class A Matchup)
Part 2 on Thursday: Picking The Brain of The Rockies’ Drew Pomeranz (Double-A Matchup)
Part 3 on Friday: Picking The Brain of The Mets’ Matt Harvey (Double-A/Triple-A Matchup)
Background: Biddle fanned Harper twice in three at-bats on April 17, 2011. Biddle was pitching for Phils’ Class A affiliate Lakewood and against Nationals’ affiliate Hagerstown, which was hosting the game. Biddle, a 20-year-old who was Philadelphia’s first-round draftee in 2010, also struck out Harper in the pair’s next and final MiLB meeting on May 13. In summary, Biddle retired Harper four times in six at-bats, three via the strikeout. The details of his four-pitch repertoire can be found here. Harper, meanwhile, whiffed 87 times in 387 at-bats in his debut ’11 season, a not-unseemly total given his slugging prowess.
Biddle on facing Harper: “In a lot of ways, he’s still a 19-year-old player, so he does have holes like every other hitter. He can’t cover every side of the plate every at-bat; it’s just not going to happen. This is something that our pitchers actually talked about a lot. You can pitch him outside – you feel more comfortable pitching him out there – but when you come inside you have to come inside; you can’t go inner-half; you have to go inside corner, working the black, because he’s got really, really quick hands and power that – I mean, he can destroy the ball if you miss.”
On his approach: “Basically, I didn’t want to treat him too differently from any other hitter. Minor League Baseball, guys can hit; they’re the best of the best, so you don’t want to do that with anybody. But you do have to be more cautious when he’s up to bat. You don’t want to throw a first pitch right down the middle, or you don’t want to work halves; I felt myself working more thirds of the plate than halves of the plate.”
On his pitch selection: “I didn’t quite feel comfortable throwing a changeup to a lefty at the time, so I knew I was just going to go fastball, curveball. And I didn’t want to pitch around him. I wanted to go at him. Just like everyone else that pitches against him, they want to get him out. The fact is, everyone brings their best when they face him and that’s what he is constantly facing. And the fact that he’s able to succeed is pretty impressive.”
On his first matchup in Hagerstown: “I didn’t really like the way their field was set up. It was a little bit shallow to his pull side, to right field, so I didn’t really want to go too far inside early in the count. So I went fastball outside – I believe he fouled the first one off – and then I went curveball for a strike, so I had him 0-2. I threw another curveball for a ball and then I got him on a fastball on the outside corner looking. I’m sure he might debate on whether it was a strike or not, but in the end it’s really up to the umpire. That was the first time I faced him. Second time, I struck him out on a curveball looking. Honestly, I felt like that was one of the best curveballs I threw. It was 12-to-6, a pretty big break. It felt perfect coming out of my hand. I think I just fooled him, which is going to happen.”
On the so-called ‘Harper hype’: “I could sit here and say that every team is the same and you gotta get pumped up for everybody – and that’s true to a certain degree – but I talked to my dad and my coaches and I said to ‘em, ‘When Bryce Harper was up at bat, I was really focused. I felt more zoned in against him than I did against any other hitter.’ When I see him, I know what he’s capable of, I know that he’s an amazing hitter – all the hype is believable, and he’s done an amazing job – but when I see that, I want to compete, I just want to get him out. That’s the goal, because he is the best and you want to test yourself against the best. When he came up to bat, I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to get this guy out.’”
“There’s no way to avoid it. As a player, you hear it everywhere. Fans are always talking about him. It is what it is. He has warranted all the hype, and he’s just played baseball to get it. So I think we all respect him in a lot of ways. We all respect what he’s done. When we’re in the clubhouse, we’re not all talking about how amazing Bryce Harper is or anything, but you pay extra close attention to him when he’s on the field. All eyes are on him when he’s playing, and that’s a gift and a curse that I’m sure he has to deal with.”