Bryce Harper signs a $330 million deal, gets off to a hot start, and then goes into a big slump, headlined by his batting average dropping to .234. Of course, when you ink a contract of that magnitude expectations are high and rightfully so. But Harper’s wild highs and epic lows of the young season are just reiterations of the type of player he is; his $330 million deal is utterly distorting it.
For the last three years, Harper’s 2018 free agency was discussed at will. Would he stay put in Washington, D.C., or head to a more renowned franchise? Well, Harper ended up going to the Philadelphia Phillies; not exactly what we all predicted.
Harper signed with a Phillies team that looked ready to rock and roll. After adding Jean Segura, J.T. Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen to a lineup that already included Rhys Hoskins, Odubel Herrera, and Maikel Franco, Harper’s arrival seemed like offensive overkill for the National League. With Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta at the top of their starting rotation, the Phillies seemed poised to be, at the very least, a playoff contender, and they’re exactly that.
The Phillies are out in front in the NL East by a game and a half (18-13). The key to their success? Not necessarily Harper. Hoskins leads the team in batting average (.288), home runs (10), RBIs (28), and on-base percentage (.415); Cesar Hernandez leads the team in hits (33).Bryce Harper's ongoing slump is indicative of the player the Phillies signed this offseason, and his $330 million contract is only distorting that. @RPStratakos explains.Click To Tweet
Now, is Harper a vital piece to the puzzle for the Phillies offense? Of course. He’s a threat to go yard whenever he steps foot in the batter’s box, has a good eye, draws walks, and can flat-out rake. Plus, his presence in a loaded Phillies lineup changes pitcher’s approach in that they can’t pitch around, or walk him. At the same time, while he has driven in 20 runs and owns a .380 on-base percentage, Harper’s .234 batting average is a severe detriment.
He’s leaving runs on base, is five for his last 40, and striking out at a high rate, so much to the point where he has totaled more strikeouts than hits (38:26) this season. How is this possible? Harper signed a $330 million deal which his talent backs up. Well, let’s consider the facts.
Harper’s MLB debut was one of the most highly anticipated call-ups in MLB history (Baseball Essential‘s Jason Kelly detailed why MLB should be fortifying its efforts towards marketing its modern-day young stars). And he validated expectations, hitting 22 home runs en route to winning the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Award with the Washington Nationals. There was talk in the offseason about how he was going to take things to the next level and firmly establish himself as the face of the Nationals in 2013; it didn’t go as planned.
After hitting two home runs on opening day and getting off to a hot start at the plate, Harper faded. Granted injuries were a part of it, Harper returned before the All-Star break and finished the season hitting just .274. He followed those efforts by hitting .273 in 100 games the ensuing season.
The 2015 MLB season was a historic period of time for Harper. He hit .330 while totaling 42 home runs and 99 RBIs and was barely ousted by then-Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon for the NL batting title. Harper, however, was given a more prestigious award: the NL MVP. How did he follow-up his memorable season? Dropping his batting average by nearly a full point, hitting .243 in 2016. On a more positive note for the star outfielder, he bounced back in a big way, hitting .319 while totaling 29 home runs and 87 RBIs in a 111-game 2017 season shortened by a freak injury on the first-base bag while running out a groundball.
Then there was the enigma that was 2018.
Harper, as he has done throughout his career, got off to an exuberant start, but had an enormous drop off in production to the point where he was hitting .209 in mid-June. He woke up towards the end of the regular season, but still finished 2018 hitting just .249.
Harper finds ways to get on base. His on-base percentage partially makes up for his low batting averages, but he also simply has a good eye. Sure, he waves at pitches, but he has also grown into a decisive hitter and is an extremely underrated fielder. With that said, he’s not one of the best hitters in the sport. The problem is his contract gave the public that inclination, especially if you’re a causal fan, or don’t watch baseball.
In sports, the highest-paid players are usually the best players in their respective sport. Right now Harper has the second richest contract, in terms of total money, in MLB history, but his production doesn’t back it up. The idea is that his potential and room for growth makes it a worthwhile signing, and therein lies the problem.
With the exception of his captivating 2015 season, a topic of discussion every year Harper has been in the big leagues has been what he has to do to become a full-fledged superstar. Harper has hit above .274 twice, totaled 100 RBIs once, and has always been lacking something in his game every year. To begin his career, he was criticized for playing his position too wildly and having a herky-jerky swing, then it became how he was simply a power hitter, and now it’s that he’s inconsistent. He’s still not a flawless player, nor has he repeated a heroic season.
Harper could very well become the dominant superstar that he was drafted to be, and he has 13 years to justify the Phillies signing him. He’s probably the best player in the NL East, from a talent standpoint, but Harper has to produce the results that such a characterization and $330 million contract commands. The money has led some to expect Hall of Fame results, as if he was always producing at such a level.
In all likelihood, Harper is going to have another productive year. When his playing days are over he will be remembered as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Phillies and Nationals uniform. Right now he’s on pace to finish with over 100 RBIs for a second consecutive season. But he’s likely not going to hit .300. And if he does, it’ll mean he adjusted his swing to hit for contact and did so with consistency.
Harper is a great player and one of the most talented individuals in baseball, but he has always been an up and down hitter who records strikeouts at a high rate. If you’re shocked by his early-season slump, most notably the .234 average, you were probably duped by the money.
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