By Teddy Brenner
When Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies in March 2019 there were lots of naysayers.
Would the hype be too much to live up to?
He’s answering those naysayers this season.
Harper’s on-base-plus-slugging percentage is 1.119, best in the National League and higher than any he has posted in any of his first eight full seasons.
Now, the Phils are only 27 games in, and this pandemic-shortened season is only 60 games long. But the stats count. More important, there may be indicators that he could, finally, replicate his MVP season, an MVP season that came five years ago.
Back in 2015, when Harper reached base at an insane .460 clip — tied for the highest mark in the past decade with Mike Trout of 2018 — scored 118 runs and launched 42 homers at age 22, it seemed many more MVP awards would be in his future. No player, including Trout, has produced a season that matched Harper’s 2015 OPS of 1.109 in the past dozen years.
What followed, though, made that year look not like a predictor but like an outlier. The four subsequent seasons — three with the Nats, last year with the Phillies — produced an .893 OPS. That’s very good. It’s just not elite. Over that span, 22 players exceeded it.
There’s a saying in baseball: You are what the numbers on the back of your baseball card say you are. But there’s no saying that a 27-year-old can’t improve the numbers on the back of his card going forward.
“I’m never satisfied with what I do,” Harper said recently. “… When I’m not swinging at bad pitches, when I’m not swinging at pitches out of the zone, that’s when I’m at my best.”
Viscerally, that’s true. We can all remember times when Harper expanded the strike zone and was more responsible than the pitcher for getting himself out. When he takes his walks, he is a machine. His walk rate to start this season is 17.7 percent — not the 19 percent rate of his MVP year but higher than in six of his eight full major league seasons.
Data provided by the website FanGraphs doesn’t necessarily indicate Harper is laying off those tempting pitches just out of the zone; he’s still swinging at more than 31 percent of them, higher than at any point in the past six seasons. But he is making marginally more contact than he did a year ago (70.9 percent to start this season, 68.3 percent in 2019) — and when he does swing, he is more effective than normal. According to Statcast data, he is “barreling up” — read: hitting the ball off the barrel of the bat — 18.3 percent of the balls with which he makes contact. Sustained over an entire season, that would by far be the highest percentage of his career.
Baseball’s unwritten rules may be softening, but they haven’t gone away
Given the point in this strange season, place a flashing “small sample size alert” on all of the above. But also acknowledge that Harper may still be transforming into what he ultimately becomes.
One of many useful tools employed by the essential baseball-reference.com is the “similarity score,” which compares players over eras by age. It’s a bit like real estate comps. At 22, Harper was most similar to Frank Robinson, the former Nats manager who was a no-doubt Hall of Famer. In each of the four seasons since, he has compared most closely to Andruw Jones, the former Atlanta center fielder who was a five-time all-star but hasn’t landed in Cooperstown.