Last winter, a 26-year-old Bryce Harper — a former No. 1 overall pick, MVP winner, and the 13th-most valuable player in baseball since his debut — hit the free agent market for the first time in his career. Because of his combination of age, pedigree, and the peak he’d shown in 2015, the bidding war for his services was expected to be as feverish and exciting as any in baseball history. The reality, however, was much different. Only a few teams ever emerged as serious contenders, and a deal didn’t get done until February 28, six days after the first spring training games began. He got his record contract, with the Phillies signing him for 13 years and $330 million, but it took the whole winter for him to secure it.
The forces that conspired to delay Harper’s signing were numerous. As a whole, the free agent market developed more slowly than any in recent memory, sparking rumors of collusion and swelling existing suspicions of how committed teams were to prioritizing wins over maximizing profits. But there was also the pressure placed upon Harper and his agent, Scott Boras, to negotiate the record-breaking monster contract people had been forecasting for them for years, as well as genuine concerns about whether Harper’s actual on-field play lived up to his fame and financial desires. There was little question about the bat, of course — his career 140 wRC+, 14.8% walk rate, and 184 homers made him one of the most fearsome hitters in the game. But his defense was a real issue after a horrific 2018 that saw him finish with the second-worst DRS total (-26) and the worst UZR (-14.4) of any outfielder in baseball. There are fickle defensive ratings painting an unclear portrait of how much a fielder is really contributing, and then there is a near-unanimous statistical case for a player’s glove being a dangerous liability. In 2018, Harper seemed to fit into the latter.
One year later, it seems those awful defensive numbers for Harper weren’t terribly predictive of his actual abilities. In his first season with the Phillies, he went from -26 DRS to +10 and -14.4 UZR to +10.0. In some respects, it was the best defensive season of his career. But while the numbers Harper displayed in the field in 2018 haven’t turned out to be prescient, the way his market played out as a result of them might have been. Read the rest of this entry »