This offseason, Bryce Harper failed to reach an agreement with 29 teams on a long term contract that will pay him more millions in any one deal than any baseball player has ever received before. Fortunately for Harper, there are 30 teams in major league baseball, and after a winter (and arguably, a life time) of waiting, the 26-year-old and the Philadelphia Phillies have agreed to a contract that will pay Harper $330 million dollars over 13 years, with a no-trade clause and no deferrals or opt-outs, per Jon Heyman and Jeff Passan. In exchange for that large guarantee, the Phillies get a star player, both in reputation and performance. His five-win 2019 projection is one of the very best in the game, and he greatly improves the Phillies’ chances of a playoff spot in a tough division.
Prior to adding Harper, the Phillies had already made several big moves, adding J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, and David Robertson. Despite those additions, the Phillies were still projected for a win total in the low 80s, and found themselves in a real fight with the Braves and Mets for second place in the division. Harper jumps into a corner outfield spot with the Phillies and improves the team by around four wins over what Nick Williams would’ve provided, vaulting the Phillies past the Mets and Braves and into a conversation with the Nationals for best team in the division and potentially the National League. Harper gets his record-breaking contract, topping Machado’s free agent deal and Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension. The money is more spread out, with a roughly $25 million average annual value that could benefit the Phillies as they navigate the competitive balance tax in the future, so go ahead and start (or continue) the rumor that Mike Trout will make his way to Philly after the 2020 season.
While the wait this winter has been a long one, as free agency drags into spring training, this deal has been an even longer time coming for the former teen phenom. Ten years ago, a 16-year-old Harper was asked what he wanted from baseball, and he responded with all the bravado of a teenager, mentioning the Hall of Fame, pinstripes, and becoming “the greatest baseball player who ever lived.” As for the criticism that came with the comparisons to LeBron James and seeming hubris of a wunderkind gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated when he could barely drive, Harper embraced it, saying “I love the way people talk crap. I hear it all the time. Overrated. You suck. I’ll just do something to shut them up, like, I’ll show you.”
A decade later, he’s still on track for the Hall of Fame, though New York’s trade for Giancarlo Stanton made pinstripes unlikely, and Mike Trout’s existence all but ensures that Harper won’t even be the greatest player of his generation. That Harper might have to settle for Cooperstown speaks to the great expectations placed on the former number one overall pick and NL Rookie of the Year. As for those trying to cut him down, a decade has likely wisened Harper to the reality that nothing he can do will ever stop the naysayers or the perception that he hasn’t done enough. After putting up consecutive four-win seasons at 19 and 20 years old, Harper was rewarded by his peers by being voted the most overrated player in the game two years in a row. While multiple All-Star-level campaigns should have been enough to draw positive attention, Harper wasn’t satisfied; he got better. At 22 years of age, he put up one of the greatest single hitting seasons of all-time and won the NL MVP award unanimously. Just two seasons later, he was again considered the most overrated player in the game by his peers.
The expectations placed upon Harper by the media, his agent Scott Boras, and by Harper himself have shaped the way he is viewed by players and fans. The Commissioner opted to single Harper out for daring to think a $400 million contract was a reasonable ask. When greatness is the standard, slumps, team failures in the playoffs, injuries that have shortened seasons, and one season’s worth of poor defensive metrics garner more attention than a Hall of Fame pace. With this contract, those expectations aren’t going away, but if his track record, projections, and comps are any indication, some of the boasts of a 16-year-old might well become reality, as Harper continues to put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers.
Comparisons help frame our understanding of players, but in free agency, historical comparisons can often do a disservice to a player like Harper. Most free agents are older than he is. Andrew McCutchen became a free agent for the first time this winter at age 32. When Harper reaches McCutchen’s age, he will be in the seventh year of his contract. Comparing Harper’s contract to 10-year deals is nearly meaningless when those deals miss on multiple prime years at the beginning and instead mostly contain multiple years in the late-30s when age decimates nearly all players. Perpetuating the owner’s message that 10-year deals don’t work out is an exercise without utility.
Since Jackie Robinson joined the majors in 1947, only 13 players have put up a WAR within five of Harper’s 30.7 and within 20% of his 3957 plate appearances through their age-25 seasons, including Manny Machado. The 11 players who preceded this year’s free agent pair averaged 39 WAR from age 26 through age-35, and eight of the 11 players are in the Hall of Fame. Even ignoring Harper’s MVP season, his comps create an incredibly high floor. According to my colleague Dan Szymborski, ZiPS, which uses some fairly conservative playing time estimates due to the length of the deal, still has Harper worth more than 30 wins over the life of the contract even with the last few seasons projected to be below replacement-level.
In the past two decades, the only players at Harper’s age or younger to reach free agency with a similarly high level of play are Alex Rodriguez, whose 140 wRC+ through age-25 is identical to Harper, and Manny Machado. The latter just received his own $300 million deal, while the former signed for $252 million nearly two decades ago. Those dollar figures can also deceive in free agency, as Rodriguez’s deal is worth close to $600 million in today’s payroll dollars. Machado’s contact might be the first free agent contact to reach $300 million, but it’s the 10th MLB contract to reach that amount in today’s dollars, while 22 deals have been worth $252 million or more adjusting for MLB payroll inflation.
It’s possible that Harper’s defense has taken a more lasting turn for the worse, and will limit his value going forward. It’s possible Harper gets hurt. He might age poorly. There is inherent risk in making any decade-long-plus commitment when you only get to see a single outcome. It’s important to bake that risk and that downside into future expectations. When we factor that risk with the very good player Harper has mostly been, the great player he’s sometimes been, and the upside associated with a star’s late-20s–make no mistake, even at this high cost, there is still substantial upside–this is an objectively good deal. Adding Harper for 2019 is always going to look good. Every single team in baseball would love to have had Harper for this season. The reason those 29 other teams don’t is their unwillingness to make the substantial commitment that comes after this season. Those teams undoubtedly have their reasons for not making that outlay, but based on everything we know, the Phillies did a very good job in securing a likely Hall of Famer fairly early on his career while paying a reasonable price to do so. For both sides, it has been a long time coming.