- Between an SI cover at 16 years old and a unanimous MVP season six years later, Bryce Harper will never escape expectations. He's established himself as baseball's biggest star, but not nearly its best player.
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Give Bryce Harper this: as a 16-year-old, he faced expectations that hadn’t been seen in baseball in a generation, and within six years, after he was named National League MVP on every ballot, he had clearly exceeded them. As a 22-year-old, he hit 42 home runs while reaching base in 46% of his plate appearances. His adjusted OPS+ (on-base plus slugging) was 98% better than league average, which was a better single-season mark than Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, or Miguel Cabrera had ever posted. The only player to have a better age-22 season since 1900 was Ted Williams.
But for all the good 2015 did Harper, it also nudged the game’s expectations higher. No longer was the central question surrounding his career whether he was actually as good as SI had said he was in 2009. The replacement question: Going forward, would Harper be as good, or even almost as good, as his bat said he was in 2015?
The answer, just as clear as the one that preceded it, is no. In the three seasons since his MVP award, Harper has looked less like a blow-dried heir to Ted Williams and more like just one of a half-dozen high-performing three-true-outcomes (homers, walks, strikeouts) dead-pull hitters who don’t help their teams on defense. In weighted on-base average (wOBA) since the start of the ’16 season, Harper ranks No. 17 in baseball, trailing his former teammate Daniel Murphy plus fellow NL outfielders Christian Yelich and Charlie Blackmon. In 2018, among MLB hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, he ranked No. 21, trailing teammates Juan Soto (who finished second in NL rookie of the year voting) and Anthony Rendon. It’s not easy gunning for the biggest contract in baseball history when you’re only the third-best hitter on your team in your walk year.
Will he get that contract, whatever it is—perhaps a deal guaranteeing him $350 million total, or a shorter one promising more than $35 million annually? The way free agency works, only one team needs to fall under Scott Boras’s spell. And teams often do. Last offseason, Boras, who is Harper’s agent, got the Padres to shell out $144 million for Eric Hosmer, who proceeded to have an unsurprisingly mediocre season in San Diego, the first of eight. The fact that 29 other teams wisely didn’t bite doesn’t reduce Hosmer’s checks going forward, or, for that matter, Boras’s.
And to his credit, Harper is baseball’s biggest star; factoring in buzz and merchandise sales, he would be more valuable to some teams (the largely anonymous Phillies, for one) than his on-field numbers would suggest. But to make history, he’ll need a lot from that boost. His statistics alone position him more for deals like the ones signed by J.D. Martinez (frontloaded at $23.75 million annually), Giancarlo Stanton ($25 million/year) or Joey Votto ($22.5 million/year). Observers have suggested that because he is hitting the market at age 26, Harper has unparalleled earning power, but given the considerable importance of fast-twitch movements to his game, and the fact that he’s already a liability in the field, his age is probably more of a non-drawback than a full-fledged asset.
If he weren’t in line for a mondo payday either way, it’d be possible to feel bad for Harper. As more hitters have adopted a game like his, opposing teams have gotten better at counteracting it. In Harper’s MVP season, teams shifted against him just 18% of the time. In 2018, he was shifted against nearly 52% of the time, which turned plenty of pulled would-be singles into outs. (Harper actually pulled a smaller fraction of his batted balls in ’18 than he did in ’15, but his overall batting average on balls in play, which was .369 in 2015, fell to .289 last year.) He still sees a healthy quotient of fastballs—60% of pitches in 2015; 57% in 2018—but their average velocity has climbed.
Harper’s intricate and violent swing may be holding him back, too. (My colleague Tom Verducci wrote in July about the Nationals’ midseason tweaks to that swing, and Harper’s numbers did improve in the second half.) The average MLB hitter makes contact 76% of the time he swings; in 2018, Harper made contact only 68% of the time he swung. If he were swinging and missing that much by design—selling out for homers—he would be making stronger contact. But Harper “barreled” only 11.5% of his batted balls. Seattle’s Nelson Cruz whiffed less and barreled 13.8% of his batted balls.
One trait to counterbalance his streakiness: Even while slumping, Harper can walk. Over the last three seasons, only Joey Votto and Mike Trout have walked in a higher fraction of their plate appearances. But Votto and Trout have hit better than .340 when they’ve put the ball into play. Harper has hit .299. It’s not that he’s not a great player; it’s not that he won’t wind up in Cooperstown. It’s just that there are better players out there; it’s just that he probably isn’t the hitter, going forward, that Christian Yelich is.
But it’s no fun watching baseball unless you’re optimistic. There’s too much failure built into the game to keep the pessimist rapt. (Bart Giamatti said all this better than anyone else ever could.) So wherever he winds up, I will be rooting for Bryce Harper to play like he did in 2015, to run away with the MVP, to set some new market ablaze.
Unless, that is, he signs with the Yankees.