When I say “Bryce Harper”, what comes to mind? 2010 Golden Spikes award winner? 2012 NL Rookie of the Year? 2015 NL MVP winner? 6-time All-Star?
Not these days. Harper is getting paid like an elite player but has not done anything spectacular since his 2015 breakout campaign. He is just 27 and in the 2nd year of a $330 million deal with the Phillies.
Bryce Harper 2018 Stats
Let’s play a little game. I am going to throw the 2018 stats of 4 different MLB players into a table. One of these stat lines belongs to Bryce Harper.
This is 2018 – Harper’s final year on the Nationals – his contract year. After this season, Harper inked a $330 million deal with Philadelphia. He must have had an amazing 2018 season to get that kind of money, right?
Each of these 4 mystery players were in their contract years in 2018. Each signed with new teams in 2019, but Harper was easily paid the most. Can you pick out Harper’s stat line from the group? It should be head and shoulders above, right? Don’t scroll down too far or you’ll reveal the answer. Good luck!
Alright … which one is Bryce?
Player A is Bryce Harper, B is Nelson Cruz, C is Manny Machado, and D is Mike Moustakas.
Harper hit for the lowest average of the group. Harper was out-homered by both Cruz and Machado. Machado drove in more runs. Machado stole more bases.
I would definitely consider Harper’s 2018 a “good” season, but it is not a season deserving of a $330 million reward. Manny Machado took less money to go to San Diego despite outhitting Harper in his contract year and playing better defense (from an infield position, no less).
The only difference between Bryce Harper and Mike Moustakas power-wise in 2018 was 6 homeruns and 5 RBIs. Moustakas signed a $64 million deal with Milwaukee – about one-fifth the size of Harper’s deal.
Bryce Harper 2019 Stats
Same game, different year. This time I am going to put the 2019 stats of 4 different players into a table. One of them is Bryce Harper in the first season of his $330 million deal. The other 3 are making far far far less money. He should easily stand out, right? Once again, don’t scroll down too far or you’ll ruin the surprise.
Which one is Harper?
Player A is Freddie Freeman, B is Yoan Moncada, C is Jorge Soler, Player D is Bryce Harper.
Once again, Harper has the lowest average of the group. His power numbers don’t compare to Freeman’s or Soler’s. He does have a few steals, but is that worth $330 million? No!
For the record, Freeman made under $17 million last year, Moncada made $14 million, Soler made just over $7 million, while Bryce Harper collected north of $25 million. More on Harper’s massive contract later.
The Steady Decline of Bryce Harper’s Off
Forget Bryce Harper’s defense. It’s not great. Harper is making his money because he carries a big stick. Off is a stat which measures a player’s offensive production. This includes both hitting and base running.
A player making $330 million who doesn’t play great defense must be pretty special with the bat. Well … Harper used to be a great hitter. Lately, he is in decline. Check this out – it’s a chart of Harper’s Off in each season of his 8-year career.
That massive spike is Harper’s 2015 MVP season in which he totaled an Off of 77.7 – nearly 20 points higher than the next closest player.
He suffered an MVP-hangover in 2016, but bounced back with the second-best hitting season of his career in 2017. Harper was seemingly back … only to regress in 2018 and then take another step backward in 2019.
Sports talk personality Colin Cowherd likes to remove a player’s best and worst season from their stats to get a true assessment of their worth. He maintains anyone can have one good year and that everyone is prone to one subpar season.
Let’s do that with Bryce Harper. Let’s remove his career-low 2014 Off and his career-high 2015 Off. Off is a cumulative stat, so we can simply add up his Off from the other seasons of his career and see where he ranks among other players since he entered the league in 2012.
Adding up Harper’s career Off minus those 2 seasons gives us 137, on the dot. This is over 6 seasons of play. That makes Harper’s career-average Off 22.83 if we ignore his best and worst seasons.
I headed to Fangraphs to see how many MLB players have averaged a 22.83 Off per season since 2012. There are 14 of them (sorted in order of their Off): Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Andrew McCutchen, Christian Yelich, Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, Mookie Betts, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, and Anthony Rizzo.
Ok, so 14 players are on par with Harper’s career averages. How many of these players are making more money than Bryce Harper? Just one – Mike Trout.
The Issue With Bryce Harper’s Contract
When Philly paid Harper, they expected plenty of moments like this:
Instead, the Phillies are locked long-term into a .260 hitter whose power numbers are simply “above average” for a corner outfielder in today’s power-heavy game.
Bryce Harper 2020 Projections
The full-season 2020 projections from ZiPS on Fangraphs tell us that Bryce Harper is due for a .258/36/114 season. We would need to divide the HRs and RBIs by 3 to get an accurate projection for the shortened season – but that is not my focus here.
I am looking at Harper’s projected Off and WAR numbers. His projected Off is 26.4 – pretty solid. His projected Def score is -8.1, which drags his WAR down to 3.8. This is decent – not great.
In 2018, Harper’s WAR was 3.4. In 2019, it was 4.6. Now think about this for a second. If Harper is making the second-most money in the Major Leagues, he should be earning the second-most wins for his team – otherwise he is overpaid.
Dividing a player’s salary by his WAR will tell you how many dollars he is making per win added to his team’s record. Earlier, I ignored Harper’s defense because I was focused on Off. Defense is a big factor in WAR.
Bryce Harper is a huge name. I am going to compare his $/win numbers to other huge names across baseball – like Trout, Betts, Bregman, etc. I will compare players using a combination of 2019 stats and 2020 projections from ZiPS.
These are not the $/win leaders, just several players who I feel are the faces of the MLB – Harper’s competition at the top.
The numbers speak for themselves. The Phillies are paying Harper a tick over $6 million for each win he provides the team. Other stars on massive deals – like Trout, Rendon, Arenado, and Betts are far more valuable. Young players still on their rookie deals are dirt cheap in comparison.
How Are Pitchers Attacking Bryce Harper?
Are pitchers getting smarter or has Harper lost a little something at the plate? This is where we get to the bottom of his decline.
First, Harper is seeing more offspeed pitches now compared to his 2015 MVP run. Check out these pitch type stats from Fangraphs.
Pitchers are now opting to throw more sliders, curves, and changeups to the lefty. Let’s take a look at some pitch value stats to see how Harper is faring against his new diet of offspeed pitches.
This next table shows Harper’s weighted runs above average against the 4 main pitch types. A higher number means Harper does more damage against those pitches. Numbers below 0 indicate Harper hits below league average against that pitch type.
|Season||FB wRAA||SL wRAA||CB wRAA||CH wRAA|
This does not look good for Harper. He is not getting beaten by one particular pitch – his numbers are down across the board. It is concerning that Harper’s numbers against fastballs are down along with the other pitches. Harper is still an above-average fastball hitter but clearly struggles against offspeed pitches.
Bryce Harper Plate Discipline Stats
Some of Harper’s decline can be attributed to an increase in offspeed pitches. The rest can be explained by the following numbers.
This next table shows some basic plate discipline stats – once again from Fangraphs. Harper is leaving the zone more often than he did during his best years. He is also missing more balls that are inside the strike zone – an indication he may not be seeing the ball well or that his bat has slowed with age. You wouldn’t think age is a factor as Harper is only 27, but something has to explain the extra swings and misses on hittable pitches.
O-Swing% is the percentage of pitches outside of the zone a hitter offers at. Higher numbers indicates a hitter is chasing more often. Z-Swing% is the percentage of pitches inside the zone a hitter offers at. O-Contact% and Z-Contact% are the percentage of swings that result in contact. You want the contact rates to be as high as possible. Check out Harper’s breakdown from the last 2 years compared to his 2015 MVP run.
I will walk you through this data. Harper’s O-Swing% is significantly higher in 2019 than it was in 2015. This means he is leaving the zone more often to chase bad pitches.
I suppose chasing isn’t a bad thing if you hit the pitches, but Harper clearly is not. His O-Contact rates have been in steady decline since his peak, probably a result of seeing more offspeed pitches – especially sliders and curveballs.
Also troubling is the fact that Harper’s Z-Contact% is way down. This means he is missing pitches inside the zone – something no good hitter should do with any regularity.
The Verdict on Bryce Harper
Practice hittin’ those curveballs, Bryce!
Pitchers have found an approach that works and will not stop using it until Harper adjusts. This former #1-overall pick has all the talent in the world. I know he can adjust, but it sure is taking him a while to do so.
Maybe all this time off will help the youngster who is just entering his prime.
Opening day is in sight! See you on top, boppers!