There's a small handful of baseball players that are surefire bets to be fun to write about. Ichiro and Bartolo Colon always make for a good time. Alex Rodriguez is living, breathing slough of 2,000 words waiting to happen. Clayton Kershaw is practically a book demanding to be written, and Mike Trout is Mike Trout.
Two other of those players are Bryce Harper and Joey Votto. Both are hitting savants and controversial in different ways. Harper is brash and boisterous, while Votto sends the traditional side of the baseball world into a lather by proselytizing the virtues of plate discipline and taking one's walks. Despite the fact that they're very evil and quite obviously not Playing The Game The Right Way (TM), Harper and Votto combined for 16.9 fWAR in 2015. Harper even took home the MVP award.
While it's hardly news that both Harper and Votto are exceptional ballplayers, let's narrow the scope a tad.
Player A:— Nick Stellini (@StelliniTweets) February 9, 2016
.330/.460/.649, 19% BB, 20% K
.314/.459/.541, 20.6% BB, 19.4% K
Who are they? Don't cheat.
Player A is Harper, and Player B is Votto. While Votto has gained fame in large part because of his vocal emphasis on taking walks, Harper mimicked his output in plate discipline while hitting for more power. Votto still walked more, of course, because he's Joey Votto, but it's an interesting and subtle development for the young MVP. Does his newly excellent walk rate paint a picture of Harper turning into the next consistent OBP monster?
No batter has reached more often since the start of the 2012 season than Votto. His .446 OBP over the span leads the pack by 37 points (Miguel Cabrera's .409). Harper is in sixth place at .384. However if only data from 2012-2014 is used, Harper falls all the way down to 54th place and a .351 OBP. His 2015 season was that much of a departure from what he had produced to that point.
As Harper told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs in July (thank you for pointing me in this direction, Eno), he's always walked. Every stop in his minor league career resulted in a walk rate of over 10 percent. 2015's 19.0 percent is easily his high water mark. It's partially due to Harper having an exceptional hitter's eye, and to pitchers not wanting to offer up too many strikes that could be launched all the way to Klingon-controlled space.
Harper told Sarris that he spoke with Votto some years ago, and that the Reds first baseman told him that "[...] if you want to hit .300 and you want to do what you want to do, you have to hit the ball to left field." Votto goes the other way as well as anybody, of course. Harper, however, is much more pull-happy. In fact, Harper pulled the ball more often in 2015 than in any other year of his career. 45.4 percent of his batted balls went towards right field, while Votto limited that figure to 37.1 percent.
This doesn't mean that Harper isn't Votto, but it doesn't mean he is, either. Harper is unquestionably a home run hitter. He swings big and crows about sending one over the fence. He was tied for the National League lead in home runs with Nolan Arenado, who plays half of his games in Coors Field. Harper is going to continue to mash homers, and then he'll mash some more.
Votto says he couldn't care less about home runs. When you hit 28 home runs without caring about them, that's very impressive. His swings are controlled and precise, only occasionally letting one truly rip if a pitcher is foolish enough to present him with a meatball down the tube.
Is Harper Votto 2.0? In his own way, perhaps, yes. He is the first player to offer the triple threat of batting average, extreme OBP and power that Votto does in quite some time. He hits the long ball more often than Votto, partially by virtue of having more natural power, and it remains to be seen if he can continue to hit .330 with that mighty swing. The odds are in his favor. Harper has been a prodigal talent ever since he first stepped foot onto a baseball field. It wasn't a matter of if he would be come one of the best hitters in the world, but when. We perhaps just didn't expect him to look so much like a nastier version of Joey Votto.