Bryce Harper is Back, Impossibly Soon

Bryce Harper
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper is back. One hundred and sixty days ago — less than six months! — he had Tommy John surgery, repairing a torn elbow ligament he suffered last April. NBC Sports Philadelphia, who you’d think would have a good read on the situation, published an optimistic headline with an aggressive timetable: Harper could be swinging by mid-May and playing in major league games by the All Star break. It’s May 3 today.

Suffice to say that 160 days isn’t a lot of time. I have perishable goods in my fridge that might have been there when Harper went under the knife. As Jay Cuda noted, the White Sox hadn’t won two straight games all season (until last night) since Harper got a shiny (well, probably not literally) new ligament to replace his old one. That’s not how these timetables work.

Tommy John surgery makes players disappear for a while. They come back to a team that looks similar but not identical to the one they left behind. That’s technically true of the Phillies — Trea Turner is reprising his old role as Harper’s sidekick, Taijuan Walker is new in town, and the bullpen has turned over — but it still feels more or less like the team Harper left. A Philadelphia sports fan who was busy on Opening Day could tune into a Phillies game after the 76ers’ season is over and get confused. “Hey, wasn’t Harper getting TJ? What’s he doing in the lineup?”

To be fair, most of our concept of Tommy John surgery has to do with pitchers getting it. As you might imagine, their elbows give out more frequently, what with it being a throwing injury and all. Harper tore a ligament in his elbow last April, which is notably not when he had surgery. You might remember him missing some time last year, but that’s because he broke his hand. He just stopped throwing, which is a thing that any position player in baseball can do now that the DH exists in both leagues.

Position players need UCL reconstruction surgery less frequently than pitchers, but they still need it sometimes. Paul Molitor was the first major league hitter to undergo the process, as I learned from this encyclopedic overview by Ginny Searle. As of that article’s publication in 2019, the average recovery time for a position player was 11 months. There are plenty of recent examples to draw on: Didi Gregorius came back in just under seven months; Corey Seager missed nearly a year, though that largely came down to timing, as he had surgery this very day five years ago, and an early-May surgery meant he wasn’t ready to return until after the playoffs were over anyway. Salvador Perez missed 15 months, but with a huge asterisk: he had his surgery in March 2019, and then there was no baseball to return to in March 2020.

Harper has a big advantage in his recovery, one that Gregorius and Seager shared: He bats left-handed but had surgery on his right elbow. A lefty swing puts more force on the left elbow than the right, which is good, because Harper’s elbow is clearly less than 100%; he’ll be limited to DH for the foreseeable future. It’s bad enough that he can’t even make a first baseman’s throws; he’s learning the receiving parts of playing first base now with a plan to transition to the position in a few months when he can handle the (minimal) throwing the position requires.

If I wanted to, I could tell you about the struggles of hitters returning from TJ. Gregorius was never the same after his. Seager needed a year of playing time to hit his stride again, though his batting line post-surgery roughly matches his line from before. Aaron Hicks went from lineup mainstay to perpetual fourth outfielder after his own surgery.

But those are just anecdotes, and there’s plenty of opposing evidence. Travis d’Arnaud came back from TJ and started fulfilling the promise he’d showed as a prospect; he’s been a better hitter since returning. Perez had the best two offensive years of his career in the two years after his surgery. Gleyber Torres got a new UCL the year before he debuted in the major leagues and proceeded to go nova for two straight seasons. In aggregate, hitters have been a bit worse upon their return, but the variance is so large that individual factors probably matter more than a broad average.

Has it crossed Harper’s mind that the Phillies need him back in the fold? Almost certainly. A lineup that projected to be stuffed to the gills with defensively-limited sluggers has turned into anything but. Rhys Hoskins is out for the year. Darick Hall, the obvious Hoskins replacement, won’t be back for months. The Phillies had a top-10 offense last year even with Harper missing plenty of time and added Turner, and yet they seem badly in need of extra offense, unless it turns out that Brandon Marsh is Yordan Alvarez with defense now, which is at least possible but colossally unlikely.

As is so often the case with injuries, we’ll never know exactly how Harper’s rehab and recovery affect him. He might come back this year and post an MVP season even if his elbow is bothering him; no one would argue the heights he’s capable of reaching when he’s going well. He could feel completely unbothered by the elbow and yet put up a disappointing year; he followed up his outrageous 2015 season (42 homers, 197 wRC+) with a clunker in 2016, with both of his ulnar collateral ligaments in perfect working order. Baseball is a game of streaks that are often indistinguishable from randomness, and that randomness doesn’t stop affecting you when you get injured.

To add to the uncertainty, Harper is trying something novel in his return: skipping a rehab assignment. As hitting coach Kevin Long told Matt Gelb in a characteristically revealing interview, “Harp’s Harp.”

Wait, no, that was the wrong quote from the interview, albeit a delightfully useless one. Here’s the one I meant to pull: “If he goes on a rehab, does it mean he’ll be better? I just don’t see the importance of it as much as maybe other people do. So I’m kind of with Harp on this one. I don’t know what to expect.”

According to the Phillies, Harper has compiled the rough equivalent of 50 at-bats worth of live batting practice. As normal as it feels to see major leaguers tearing through the minors on rehab assignments — Fernando Tatis Jr. hit .515/.590/1.212 in eight games of Triple-A appearances this year — there’s no obvious reason that facing minor leaguers in novelty uniforms is better than facing Ranger Suárez and Jeff Hoffman in an empty stadium, as Harper did during his ramp-up. But doing something different than the norm always invites speculation, and skipping a conventional rehab assignment certainly qualifies.

In other words, don’t read too much into Harper’s first few games back. The question for the Phillies isn’t whether he is back at full strength; it’s whether a rusty Harper beats their best alternative, and I think that’s a clear yes. Even if they knew he would scuffle by his standards for a few weeks upon returning, that sounds a lot better than the Jake Cave/Kody Clemens mashup they’ve been working with.

In total, the Phillies are looking at an extra two months of Harper compared to the already optimistic July timeline he set immediately following his surgery. Call it an extra 200 plate appearances or so, accounting for rest time. Depending on how quickly he reacclimates and how much rest he needs, that’s something like an extra two wins compared to the players he’s replacing in the lineup. It’s a bit better than that, even, because bumping Cave and Clemens into reserve roles means fewer at-bats for their backups, a virtuous cycle of better hitting.

Two wins might not mean anything to the Phillies at the end of the year, but it also might be the difference between making and missing the playoffs. In 2022, after all, they made the playoffs by a single game; subtract two wins off of that total, and instead of a World Series run with a delightful rookie manager, we’d be talking about their continued futility. The Phillies might win 95 games and cruise to the playoffs or 81 and miss easily. But if they’re in the mid 80s again — and we’re projecting 84.7 wins for them at the moment — then turning a few losses into victories thanks to Harper’s heroics could be tremendously important.

When you get right down to it, though, that’s not why Harper is back. He’s back because he’s a baseball addict. He’s back because he dedicates his entire life to the sport. Most players would have opted for surgery when they initially tore their UCL. Certainly, most players would have taken a seat when they subsequently broke their hand; that’s two debilitating injuries at once, a great time to take a step back and fix what’s ailing you. Harper persevered, and was at his best in the biggest moments last October.

In last night’s debut, Harper looked rusty, unready for game speed. He struck out three times in four at-bats and struggled to square up fastballs. But hey, cut him some slack. He just came back from five months of strenuous rehab to bolster the Phillies’ playoff hopes. Plenty of major league hitters look bad against pitchers like Julio Urías and Phil Bickford every night. He’s still Bryce Harper, and returning this quickly is still a mind-boggling feat.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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11 months ago

Bryce Harper as a baseball addict: I don’t doubt that is true. But he is also not exactly the guy I would think of when I think of a “level-headed” player. He has often let struggles go to his head. He got in fights. He didn’t listen to anyone. To me, it seems like the way he’s handled these injuries is how Bryce Harper’s wildness has changed as he’s matured and grown up, channeling that “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude into doing stuff like this.

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

You’re wading out a little deeper into armchair psychology than is probably wise. Unless you have some evidence that Harper was, like, ignoring his surgeon’s advice during recovery or something, keep these opinions to yourself.

11 months ago
Reply to  raregokus

Oh, I think this is actually quite mature of him, all things considered. He’s a hot-headed, emotional guy. He’s just channeling it into something productive.

Another Old Guymember
11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I can’t wait to see how many down votes I stir up sadtrombone. Your first comment may have been a bit harsh, but it was not far off and you are entitled to your opinion. I completely agree with your second comment. Harper definitely had some maturity issues when he broke into the major leagues as a 19 year old and the evidence of these is a matter of record. Blowing a kiss to a pitcher (as an 18 year old minor leaguer) and getting stitches after tossing a bat are included amongst these I recall. Having said that, the first issue was about cockiness (he has backed it up through the years though) and the second was intensity channeled the wrong way. The cocky behaviors have disappeared in the mature Harper and channeled to performance on the field. He was a very young player at the time and even then he was team oriented, which many stars lack. I challenge how many readers of this post to tell me they had the maturity thing completely down at age 19. I was not a baseball player by any stretch of the imagination, but I know my maturity and decision making skills grew by leaps and bounds between age 19 and 25, let along 30 which Harper is now. Harper is very team driven and is willing along with his doctor to take the DH path which minimizes the risk of reinjury for him hopefully. I admire him for having the fire and good genetics to do what it took to return early.

11 months ago
Reply to  raregokus

Didn’t the author just do the same thing?

11 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I dunno trombone you always been on this same crusade against Harper since I first joined. Almost feels like I know you somehow irl and it’s just bait that you know I will respond to and you are having a laugh.

Yet year after year Harper is fine, and it works out. He used to dive for balls that he doesn’t and likely won’t ever again. He was/is hot-headed, I’d argue that is probably a good thing. But things change with age. He looked fine tonight. If we going to talk about small samples like when a teammate attacked him, or arguing w umps on bad calls, or diving headfirst into 1b like an idiot we should also talk about his league leading batting line of 429/556/571 w 211wrc+. Since we doing the whole small sample size thing.