Bryce Harper is one of the biggest celebrities in baseball, a popular face and brand with a command of the media not unlike LeBron James or Aaron Rodgers. Unlike LeBron and A-Rod, though, Harper has not lived up to the heightened expectations of a phenom Sports Illustrated dubbed “Baseball’s Chosen One”.
Now in his eighth season, and with the ink dried on a monstrous 13-year contract, is it time to ask if he ever will?
While Bryce Harper is toiling to a .222/.367/.438 slash line six weeks into his 2019 campaign, the eighth of his notable big league career and at a tender 26 years of age, whereas Harper has barely moved the replacement-level meter according to Baseball-Reference.com (0.3 bWAR!) and, further, for the moment leads the National league in walks and all Major League Baseball in strikeouts, the writer is left with little choice but to ask an admittedly-provocative question:
Remove his two strongest seasons–the 2015 MVP year and 2017–and Bryce Harper for his career is slashing .255/.364/.460. That’s not terrible per se, but it also isn’t remotely the kind of output that warrants a mega-deal that pays him at least $23 million per annum through his age 38 season in 2031. Those averages are similar to Ryan Braun‘s 2014, when he was lost in a post-suspension malaise and dealing with chronic back and thumb injuries (and for which he was only paid $10MM.)
Is it possible that Bryce Harper, for all his talent and ability, isn’t actually as good as he could be or popular convention makes him out to be? Is there something front offices across MLB know that isn’t obvious to those of us on the outside? Reporters and MLB insiders clamored mightily throughout the offseason that Harper and Manny Machado weren’t being signed, while others took lesser deals or opted to extend; is it possible they were trying to wag the dog? (And they still are clamoring, now for Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel, both of whom remain unemployed for the time being.)
Harper’s barreling up pitches well enough (12.2% as of 5/14 per Statcast, his best since the MVP season) but his OPS+ currently matches his career low 111 in 2014. ISO is also significantly down, creating a three-year downward trend from a career-high .276, while he’s also pulling at a clean 50% clip, by far a career high and also chasing pitches at an elevated rate. Either the league has him scouted or there has been a lot of sound and fury with literally nothing to show for it.
Anecdotally, it was Harper’s second at bat Monday night against the Brewers’ Freddy Peralta–he of the two pitch variety–that started me down this road toward Bryce Harper skepticism. Harper swung and missed at the first pitch, watched two balls go by, fouled the fourth pitch off and was caught looking for strike three: a flat fastball middle-in. Peralta throws his four-seamer 76% of the time and has all but abandoned his sparsely-used change-up.
Fox Sports Wisconsin color commentator and former Brewers catcher Bill Schroeder suggested during the telecast that Harper was looking for a curve; which seems crazy in that 1) Peralta pumped almost entirely fastballs at him in both ABs to that point, 2) he chased on the curve to strike out in the first inning, so if he were looking for it, he probably would have chased, and 3) a professional hitter, saying nothing of a player with Bryce Harper’s notoriety and ability, should be able to at least foul a pitch like that off and stay alive in the count against a streaky pitcher like Peralta.
And that’s where I started: Is Bryce Harper getting by on raw talent? Is it possible that this, one of the most recognizable faces in MLB, never really learned how to play the game? After seven seasons, only two of which were truly excellent, is Bryce Harper now what he will be?
A person close to the Nationals front office independently confirmed that notion: “This is [Harper] at this point,” he told Bronx to Bushville. “I don’t see him hitting for a high average anymore. He tends to disappear and that’s being shown on a bigger stage in Philly. His mechanics get messed up so easily so it’s difficult for him to put everything together all year long.”
Let’s present two players’ bodies of work:
Player A: .248/.381/.519 – 178 2B, 238 HR, 572 RBI, 50 GIDP, 675 BB, 1092 K
Player B: .277/.387/.509 – 183 2B, 184 HR, 521 RBI, 66 GIDP, 585 BB, 834 K
Player B is Harper through seven seasons. Player A? Adam Dunn over his first seven years.
For what it’s worth, Dunn for his entire career made roughly half of what Harper will make in Philadelphia alone. And Dunn’s production was with generally inept Reds teams while Harper routinely was part of 90+ win Nationals clubs.
Stupid money, indeed.
Let’s be fair: the possibility exists that Harper finds what made him such a force in 2015 and channels that into reasonable facsimiles of that campaign. Even then, he’s going to get boatraced by Mike Trout, who is in every way except being able to hit from both sides of the plate, Mickey Mantle. Moreover, that already happened.
Where Trout has seized the opportunity and not let up in the slightest, Harper’s reach seems to exceed his grasp, and the distance between those two things may well be the difference between his raw talent and developed skill.
Harper entered the league in 2012 relatively well-protected, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche (along with Jayson Werth and his bookends season) anchored one of the best offenses in the NL, a perfect environment for Harper to enter and grow. This wasn’t Robin Yount coming to Milwaukee in 1974 with only George Scott and Don Money as protection, but a pennant contender with an experienced manager. Harper wasn’t the centerpiece of that team, he was gravy.
Every position player not named Werth regressed in 2013, and in 2014, the Nationals went 96-66 while Harper played in an injury-shortened 100 games. Harper indeed carried the club in 2015 along with Yunel Escobar, pressed into duty for an injured Anthony Rendon, but that club only won 83 games. The ’16 squad won 95 games with Dusty Baker at the helm, with career years from Wilson Ramos and Daniel Murphy and six 20 HR hitters in their everyday lineup. In 2017, they won 97 games with Harper, Murphy, Rendon and Trea Turner.
With the Rendon’s emergence and an outstanding rookie season from Juan Soto in 2018, along with Harper disappearing in his contract year, it would appear that the organization was actually prepared to moved on from BRYCE HARPER in favor of Rendon, a better defender who provides similar production at the plate and is almost certainly not going to command Harper-grade cash.
A look at the metrics seems to bear that out. Harper’s bWAR: 27.7 in 7+ seasons, Rendon: 21.9 in 6+. To the point, the Nationals front office was “extremely comfortable with Soto/(Victor) Robles/(Adam) Eaton this year.” The source claimed the organization “thought that would be a better overall outfield than plugging Harper into one of those spots.”
Considering Harper’s defensive liabilities (a career -3.3 dWAR per Baseball-Reference.com) and either inability or unwillingness to develop as a hitter, moving forward with Rendon, who himself isn’t an elite defender at a premium position–flat or net negative BBRef dWAR in three of his six full MLB seasons–is justifiable from both fiscal and baseball perspectives.
With all this data and more readily available, why would the Phillies, division rivals a puddle jump away, drop such enormous time and capital investments in a player whose chief nemesis is nothing more than the clock? When the athlete preternaturally gifted at baseball never truly adapts and becomes a baseball player, this is not the stuff of mockery, but more becoming of Greek tragedy.
Bryce Harper may be the Achilles of our time: gifted and yet fatally flawed. And he may end up being the last to ever know.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.