Bryce Harper: Average Player?

If I had to make a list of the most interesting players in baseball, Bryce Harper would be near the top. A year ago, Harper was a complete stud. He led the National League with 42 home runs, a 1.109 OPS, and was worth a monstrous 9.9 WAR. He joined Ted Williams as the only players in the live-ball era to post a 190 OPS+ in a season before turning 23. The Washington Nationals right fielder looked to be the next young superstar in baseball, and justifiably so. The unanimous MVP couldn’t be stopped, and he was still years away from entering his prime.

The 2016 season was a different story. Following a historically great season, Harper was just average. He slashed a mediocre .243/.373/.441, hitting 24 homers while only accumulating 1.6 WAR. Nearly all of his stats dropped from the previous year, improving only in stolen bases and intentional walks. The Nationals outfielder lost 85 points in wRC+ from his MVP season (197 in 2015, 112 in 2016). This tops (or bottoms?) Scott Brosius‘ drop of 81 points from 1996 to 1997 as the worst drop in wRC+ from one year to the next since 1901 (minimum 500 at bats in each season). That’s not good, at all. This rasies the questions: “How good is Bryce Harper?”

I would say the vast majority of baseball fans would say that Harper is still one of the best players in baseball, despite his mediocre 2016 season. There is some suspicion that he was playing through an injury some of the season, and that is a completely valid point. Harper playing with an injury definitely decreased his value in 2016. But that wasn’t the reason for such a large drop-off.

What was the reason?

One word: (Un)sustainability

Harper had a monster 2015 season; that’s not up for debate. I’d probably even go as far to say it was the best season by a National Leaguer since Barry Bonds. But, why? Well, to start, his HR/FB% was insane. A startling 27.3% of the fly balls that Harper hit went over the fence. The only players who can do this consistently are pure home run hitters — only Nelson Cruz, Chris Davis, and Ryan Braun have had a better HR/FB% in either of the last two years than Harper did last season. Well, maybe Harper is on that list of pure sluggers, and this isn’t out of the question for him. Here’s how Harper has fared in that category over the course of his career:

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There’s a word for this kind of table. Outlier. 2015, in terms of Bryce Harper hitting a ton of dingers, is what we call an outlier. What else could explain this? Well, maybe a lot more of his fly balls in 2016 (and 2012-2014) were hit with weaker contact than in 2015, and that’s why most didn’t leave the ballpark. That seems like a reasonable explanation. How about we look at Harper’s HR/FB% when he only hit the ball hard. This would eliminate all of his weak fly balls, and only look at the ones he hit really well.

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Again, when Harper hit hard fly balls, 2015 was still an extreme outlier, with his home run percentage still drastically above what his norm is. Some of this is due to skill, hitting the ball in places it’ll go out. However, most of this is due to luck. If he was at that 55.3% mark his entire career, then yes, he is capable of doing it day in and day out. However, when you see that extreme spike one year, and then see it fall back down to his average the year after, it’s more due to luck than anything. And no, Harper didn’t hit an extremely low number of fly balls this year compared to last year. His fly ball% actually increased between the two seasons (39.3% in 2015, 42.4% in 2016). If, in 2016, he hit the ball out at a rate even somewhat close to what he did in the year prior, he still would’ve put up monster home run numbers. Why didn’t he? Unsustainability.

Are there more examples of this? Certainly there are.

As you know, Harper is a lefty. When a lefty starts hitting the ball well in this day and age, you’d almost certainly see teams start using a defensive shift on him. That’s what happened to Harper. In 2015, Harper put the ball in play 394 times. Of them, his opponents utilized the defensive shift during 126 of them (32.0%). Baseball is all about adjustments, and that’s what we saw. In 2016, Harper put the ball in play 399 times. He saw a defensive shift during 234 of them (58.6%). His opponents did, in fact, adjust. However, that’s not why I bring this up. I bring this up because in 2015, Bryce Harper hit unsustainably well against the shift. In 2016, not so much.

The following table displays his wOBA and OPS when hitting the ball into the shift (pulling the ball or hitting it up the middle with the shift in play). This factors out balls he hit to the opposite-field off the shift.

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In 2015, 24.9% of the time Harper put the ball into play, he hit it into the shift. For some reason, he performed remarkably well when he did. 2016 had conflicting results. He hit the ball into the shift more (because he saw more of them), and performed significantly worse. His OPS dropped over 250 points against them, while his wOBA took a hit of over 100 points. What Harper did against the shift in 2015 was simply unsustainable, and as teams began shifting him more in 2016, the large sample size took its toll. Expect this trend to continue in Harper’s future. Teams will continue shifting against Harper, and it’ll continue to work as it did in 2016.

How about Harper’s platoon splits? How did Harper do against lefties last year, compared to the rest of his career?

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You tell me: which looks like Harper’s true talent level against left handers? His 2015 strikes me as a huge outlier, and it seems that the way he performed in his other seasons are more like his norm.

Something that killed Harper was his uncharacteristically low BABIP, as it was only .264 this season. This has a little to do with luck (or lack thereof). A more likely explanation would have to do with his career-high soft hit% in 2016 (19.8%), which could be traced back to the fact he was playing through injury. On the other hand, don’t expect his .369 BABIP from 2015 to carry over into the future, either. As mentioned earlier, Harper got extremely lucky, and that pace is simply unsustainable.

Don’t get me wrong, Harper is one of the best players in baseball to build a franchise around. He’ll only be 24 next season, and he has already shown flashes of greatness. However, unless he gets super lucky again, don’t expect another 2015-like season from Harper any time soon. It’s just way too hard to maintain over a whole season.

In my book, Bryce Harper is an average-to-above-average player right now. Nothing more, nothing less. We all know what he can be. However, don’t let your recency bias or his insane luck from 2015 raise your expectations of him quite yet.

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