Having spent more than half a billion dollars combined on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, you might think the Phillies and Padres should be in playoff position and Harper and Machado would be All-Stars. Neither is the case three-quarters through their first seasons with their new teams. Harper is making less contact than ever before in his career and Machado leads the National League in one category: grounding into double plays.
But don’t call these guys busts. For $630 million, Philadelphia and San Diego are getting production from Harper and Machado that is only slightly below their career norms. The problem is we expected more from them based on the hype of their contracts.
Machado and Harper were not among the 10 best players in the game when they signed their mega-deals. Over the previous two seasons entering free agency, Machado ranked 23 in Wins Above Replacement for position players and Harper ranked 67. Machado signed for $300 million and Harper signed for $330 million not because of WAR but because of market forces, including 1) neither the Padres nor Phillies had fielded a winning team in at least seven years, causing a dangerous erosion of their fan bases, 2) competitive bidding from at least one other club, 3) both players were 26 years old, and 4) both players were durable with elite seasons and “star power” on their resume.
The biggest knock on Machado and Harper is that with the way the baseball is flying this year they haven’t been better sluggers. Machado’s slugging (.483) is down more than 50 points from last year, but right in line with his career mark (.486). Harper (.472) is down further (.496 last year, .508 career). Neither one cracks the top 60 in slugging among qualified hitters.
But if you dig a little deeper–and if you tamp down the expectations based on the hype their contracts created–the Third Quarter Report Card for each of them carries the same grade: a solid but unspectacular B. Here is why.
Harper is this generation’s Reggie Jackson–only with more walks and without October. Like Reggie, Bryce is one of the most exciting players in the game (not one of the 10 best), he strikes out a ton but is on a Hall of Fame track when it comes to power and reaching base, and he’s one of the few baseball players recognizable out of uniform or simply by his first name.
That’s not all. Check out how eerily similar they are through the same number of career games (1,044):
Let’s extend the comparison to what George Steinbrenner called the ability to “put fannies in the seats.” The Phillies are on pace to draw almost 600,000 more fans this year than last, making them the hottest draw in baseball when it comes to ticket sales growth. The average Phillies ticket price is $36. Concessions and novelties generally rate at about one dollar for every five dollars in ticket sales. At about $43 per person, that’s $25.7 million in added attendance revenue alone. Harper’s average annual value is $25.4 million. So Harper has impacted the bottom line.
Let’s look at how pitchers “value” Harper. If he’s having a down year, it would stand to reason that pitchers can be more aggressive pitching to him. That’s simply not the case. Instead, this is the best compliment anybody can give Harper about his 2019 season: pitchers avoid throwing strikes to Harper more than anybody in baseball.
Highest Percentage of Pitches Out of the Zone, MLB 2019
1. Bryce Harper, Phillies
2. Pete Alonso, Mets
3. Josh Bell, Pirates
4. Javier Baez, Cubs
5. Christian Yelich, Brewers
6. Nolan Arenado, Rockies
More hidden value: Harper is hitting .381 with runners in scoring position–a career best–slugging .659 in high-leverage situations, driving in a higher percentage of runners than ever before, and unlike last season, when he seemed to be in self-preservation mode, he actually is leaving his feet to attempt to make catches on defense.
So why does it seem like Harper is having a down year? The contract–and contact.
He has the sixth-worst contact rate in baseball. Why? Because as pitching changed in the past few years–the sinker is a dying pitch and the elevated four-seam fastball keeps gaining in usage–Harper’s unique swing is working against him.
By sinking deep into his legs, then pulling up and away with his front shoulder, Harper could always generate tremendous torque and lift on any pitch in and down. But the game changed. Pitchers throw fewer fastballs down. That same swing is getting exposed on pitches away and up.
Since Harper won the MVP award in 2015, the average height of the four-seam fastballs thrown to Harper has gone up every year. He is seeing more of them and doing less with them.
Consider four-seamers against Harper in his MVP season and this year:
Four-Seam Fastballs vs. Harper
Swings and Misses
With six weeks left in the season Harper already has swung and missed at more four-seamers this year than he did in all of 2015–and the vast majority of them are away and up, where his swing doesn’t work.
He's still on track to finish with 30 homers and 107 RBI, which would be a career high. His clutch numbers are excellent. More than anything else, he will be judged and how he and the Phillies do down the stretch in a tight wild-card race.
Like Harper, Machado has hit well with runners in scoring position (.333) and is on pace for solid numbers in home runs (36, one off his career high) and RBI (97; he’s only had one 100-RBI season; 107 last year). He’s still an excellent defender.
The problem with his season is that it has had little impact, at least anecdotally. San Diego will sell about 207,000 more tickets this year than last, an $8.3 million bump in ticket revenues. But the Padres are 55-62, making them one of only about four teams in the NL to play themselves out of contention with one-quarter of the season to play.
Machado has been bad against righthanded pitching (OPS+ of 78) and weak in high-leverage spots (0 HR, .269 in 74 plate appearances). He’s one of the worst hitters in baseball in the late innings of games:
Worst Hitters in Innings 7-9 (Min. 100 PA)
1. Billy Hamilton, Royals
2. Harrison Bader, Cardinals
3. Albert Pujols, Angels
4. Jurickson Profar, A's
5. Manny Machado, Padres
Translation: There have been few, if any, memorable moments for Machado as a Padre. He is a great ambush hitter, especially when it comes to first-pitch fastballs (.420, seven home runs), but vulnerable deep into counts and against secondary pitches.
Overall, Machado has been close to the hitter he has been most of his career. But it doesn’t seem so, not with San Diego six games under .500 and without a signature moment.