The biggest fish in the free agent pond this year is Bryce Harper. He used to be in the conversation for best player in the game. At one point last year he was rumored to be looking for a $500 million contract. (He’s since scaled it back to $400 million.) Whichever team signs him is going to be getting a top 5 player in MLB, but who actually is the player they are signing? Here are the features most representative of his career up to this point.
Fair warning: if you are someone that’s triggered by the “Bryce Harper is overrated” argument, turn back now for your own sake.
When you think of Harper do you think of long home runs, dramatic hair flips, or arrogant self-confidence? To fans, those are just a façade. None of the above truly represent the player himself. Beyond his bigger-than-life attitude, he’s better defined by inconsistency, strikeouts, walks, and an increasing disassociation from pitches on the outer third of the plate.
Remember back when Harper was drafted and christened the best player in baseball before he even stepped on a Big League diamond? He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16. Since his debut, it feels as though we’ve only seen the best version of him every other year. Whether it’s injuries that get in the way or other factors that no one can understand, Harper has not put together a string of consistently dominating seasons.
His best season came back in 2015 when he won the National League MVP. No one was nearly as impressive as him that year. His OPS+ of 198 (100 is league average and 268 is the greatest ever recorded) signified the most dominating season by a hitter since the retirement of Barry Bonds. Here are his stats for every season of his career and the players who his stats most resembled in each year.
|2018||159||0.249||34||100||Rhys Hoskins* and Edwin Encarnación|
|2017||111||0.319||29||87||Jose Ramirez and Eric Hosmer|
|2016||147||0.243||24||86||Jake Lamb and Brad Miller|
|2015||153||0.330||42||99||Mike Trout** and Nelson Cruz|
|2014||100||0.273||13||32||Manny Machado and Stephen Vogt|
|2013||118||0.274||20||58||Will Venable and Jason Castro|
|2012||139||0.220||22||59||Alex Rodriguez and Scott Hairston|
*An interesting tidbit that Harper and Hoskins had identical hit totals and home run totals in just a difference of 8 at-bats last year
**For perspective, every year since Harper made his Major League debut, Mike Trout has had at least 27 home runs, 72 RBI, and a .280 batting average.
The glaring criticism in his game is the disparity in his batting averages. Is Harper a .330 hitter or a .240 hitter? He’s realistically somewhere in the middle. In this day and age, front offices are placing a premium value on run producers rather than table setters. They will pay top dollar to the guy that’s driving in runs rather than scoring them. Meanwhile, since Harper’s only reached the 100-RBI total once in his career, his inconsistency as an elite average-hitter will really hurt his ability to reach that hopeful $400 million mark this offseason.
What other inconsistencies does he have? Well, he actually performs differently in the first half compared to the second half. The numbers prove that he doesn’t struggle, but that his approach changes. For his career, his first half traditionally sees more runs, home runs, RBI, walks, a higher OBP, SLG, and OPS while his walk rate is higher and his strikeout rate is lower. He attempts more stolen bases. He also averages fifteen more walks in the first half than the second half. That makes him 2.7% more likely to walk during a plate appearance in the first half.
While most of these can largely be explained by more first-half games and plate appearances, what is peculiar about Harper is the adjustments that his second-half stats seem to indicate about his approach. Despite his productivity stats being stronger in the first half, Harper is indeed historically a better hitter with respect to batting average in the second half. His hard hit percentage stays nearly identical to the first half, but his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) increases by 28 points and his line drive percentage (LD%) increases by 2.86%.
Why does he become more of a line drive hitter in the second half? It’s hard to say why exactly. Line drives are typically hit harder than fly balls and groundballs and usually result in outs less often. Harper’s change in approach could’ve been him attempting to help his team down the stretch towards the playoffs. Whether he meant to or not, by shortening and simplifying his stroke, he has been rolling with the selfless approach even though the level swing hasn’t exactly been in vogue lately.
What about when it matters most? Is he clutch? Well, Harper doesn’t necessarily excel in those situations either. From the seventh inning on, he slashes .239/.363/.455 and strikes out 23.6% of the time. Compare that to .295/.397/.536 and 19.8% in innings one through six.
Okay, so he doesn’t do great late in games. How about in high leverage situations? Not terrible: .255 batting average and 23.1% strikeout rate. Remove the stakes of the situation: .281 and a 20.9% K-rate.
Against LHPs in high leverage situations, he’s batting .183 with 42 strikeouts in 109 at-bats. Just for fun I also researched his stats against lefties in high leverage situations in the 7th inning or later on the road after falling behind 0-2. As you might expect, he’s 0-7 with 5 K’s.
It’s well-documented that Harper doesn’t always rise to the occasion. For as much as MLB likes him in the spotlight, he hasn’t really performed to the billing. In the postseason he’s slashing .211/.315/.487 in 19 games.
It’s natural to have inconsistencies and shortcomings in certain situations and Harper has plenty of them. It’s also much more difficult to perform under the microscope as Harper is, but these are the facts that challenge the validity of his subjective value propositions.
Strikeouts are up all over baseball, and it’s a trend that had Harper fall victim to conformance this past year. For whatever reason, Harper exceeded his previous career high in strikeouts by 38. He had 169 strikeouts, ninth most in MLB. He recorded his highest strikeout percentage since 2014, his least productive season in the Majors. The launch angle in his swing has increased and, too, with it his strikeout percentage. The last three seasons have seen a steady uptick in K% from 18.7% to 20.1% to 24.3%. The Steamer on FanGraphs projects Harper to strikeout 143 times next year.
His strikeouts are a concern yes, but oddly enough last year was the most offensively-patient of his career. He only swung at 26.1% of pitches outside the zone! The alarming stat was that he only made contact with 71.1% of the pitches he swung at, a career low. That includes all balls put in play and foul balls. If he continues to implement the same approach over the next few years, we can expect to see much of the same from him in the swing-and-miss department. It’s become part of his game.
Walks have also become a massive part of Harper’s game, not necessarily because he’s being more selective, but because pitchers are pitching around him more often. He led the league in walks last year; 130 was eight more than Trout. Getting the small-scale version of the Bonds treatment, Bryce is just an on-base machine. Only 39.1% of the pitches he saw last year were in the strike zone. He could theoretically draw a full count in every at-bat by stepping in the box and not taking the bat off his shoulder!
Since Bonds retired, Harper’s one of only three players to have 130 walks in a season (which also makes Bonds’ 2004 total of 232 base-on-balls unfathomable). Harper’s walk rate was 18.7% last year, just underneath the 19% of his MVP year. Despite leading the world in walks, he failed to attain a .400 OBP for a third time in his seven-year career. Trout’s OBP in 2018 was .460 (!), a.k.a. Harper’s OBP in his MVP year. .460 was the highest rate since Chipper Jones (.470) in 2008.
Altogether, strikeouts, walks, and HBP have combined for 36.4% of Harper’s career plate appearances. It’s unbelievable to think that there is a slightly greater than 1-in-3 chance that a Harper plate appearance won’t end with a ball in play.
Disassociation from the Outer Third
Bryce Harper has always been fond of the down and in pitch, as many left-handed hitters are. However, he has been increasingly reluctant to swing at balls located on the further 5.7” of the plate. I see two ways to explain his swing pattern.
1) Harper knows he’s vulnerable on outside pitches so he doesn’t try to hit them.
2) He knows that he can hit outside pitches but also understands that he has a better chance of doing damage by pulling the ball.
In July, Harper’s agent Scott Boras said Bryce suffers greatly from the shift and that the shift is “discriminatory” to left-handed hitters. He clarified his comments by saying that for right-handed hitters the shift will put three guys on one side of the infield while a left-handed shift will put four. The shift has only put a damper on his client’s value though Boras denied that the shift has limited his client’s value at all. These are all the ground balls that Harper hit last year, both his hits and outs. Judge for yourself.
The likely scenario is that Harper would rather sacrifice his hit total in order to maximize his run production. To do this, he’s set his sights middle in, looking for that pitch down to drive. If you haven’t seen his swing before, this is his heat map for 2018. (Pitcher’s viewpoint)
The logic behind Harper’s pitch selection is percentage-based. He found that his hard-hit percentage was highest when he pulled the ball. The chance of getting a hit is maximized when the ball is hit hard. Therefore, by the transitive property, his chance of getting a hit is maximized when he pulls the ball. This reasoning does not take shifts into account. Shifts have neutralized hitters’ strengths and forced them to adapt and revert back to less likely odds of hitting the ball hard or suffer low batting averages.
Harper has not been deterred by the shift. He’s trying to hit the ball hard, up and over the shift. Running the numbers, we see that for his career as his pull percentage increased, so did his hard hit percentage. The two are moderately correlated. Harper is selling out on inside pitches and laying off outside pitches. The graph below shows the more he pulls the ball, the harder he hits the ball.
This is largely his approach, especially against left-handed pitchers. His pull percentage against southpaws in 2018 was 48%, back to a similar level of 2015 Harper. Contrast that to 39.5% against righties. He has conceded his ability to hit the slider away from a lefty and instead looked for the hanger. Take a look at his lefty/righty home runs splits from last year.
What’s to Come for Harper?
He’s looking for the biggest contract in Sports history and you better believe he’s going to get it. He turned down 10 years and $300 million from the Nationals at the end of this past season. I wonder how insulting he found that offer to be, given that he sees himself worth much more (imagine $300 million being insulting). He also may not have wanted to return to the Nationals which seems very possible as well. Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo basically came out last week and admitted the Nationals weren’t a likely candidate to re-sign Bryce.
Right now, possibly three teams are the best fits for Harper: the Phillies, White Sox, and Astros. The first two teams have the capability to sign him to a mega-deal and currently have a need in right field. The Astros don’t necessarily have the payroll flexibility for a Harper, but they do have an open outfield spot. Teams like the Yankees, Cubs, and Dodgers already have too many outfielders. A trade would need to happen for one of those teams to open up payroll and an outfield spot for Harper to sign there.
In the end, Harper should sign for 12 years and $360 million. Regardless, he’s going to get a contract that is going to make him the richest athlete in the history of sports. The Winter Meetings are this week in his hometown of Las Vegas. Could he be waiting to make a huge splash and sign there? Will he be the first player to earn $400 million? Only time will tell.
Picture Credits to nesn.com, washingtonnationals.com, and FanGraphs