Checking In on Bryce Harper, Full-Time Designated Hitter (For Now)

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We went over this just a couple of weeks ago: between Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins, and Alec Bohm, the Phillies have no shortage of defensively challenged players who might be better served as the team’s designated hitter, and luckily for them, the DH is now a permanent thing in the National League. The team’s plan at the outset of the season was to use its two new free agent sluggers, Castellanos and Schwarber, to occupy that role while minimizing their exposure in the field, yet for almost two weeks now, the position has been occupied by Bryce Harper. The reigning NL MVP was supposed to be the team’s starting right fielder, but an elbow injury has led to him shelving his glove for the moment — and it’s coincided with him heating up after a slow start.

Harper started eight of the team’s first nine games in right field, but he hasn’t played the position since April 16. Instead, he’s remained in the lineup as the team’s DH for 12 straight games. He apparently injured the elbow while making a throw to home plate on an RBI single by the Mets’ Francisco Lindor on April 11:

Afterwards, Harper was seen grabbing his elbow:

Though Harper DHed the next day, he played four more games in the field before returning to DH duty. At the time, manager Joe Girardi described his condition as “a little irritation, a little tendinitis” in his throwing elbow, aggravated by throws made while playing right field against the Marlins from April 14-16. Harper took a break from throwing, underwent an MRI on April 21, and was diagnosed with a mild strain in his flexor mass.

The injury does not bother the 29-year-old slugger when he swings a bat, and so he’s been able to stay in the lineup. He began the year in a 4-for-29 funk, with three of those four hits going for extra bases, including an RBI double on Opening Day against the A’s and a homer off the Mets’ Edwin Díaz on April 13, after the initial injury. He went 3-for-3 with a two-run double off Trevor Rogers on April 16, kicking off a stretch of 12 games during which he’s hit .362/.392/.638.

Harper’s overall .276/.337/.513 line doesn’t look like much, but it’s good for a 142 wRC+ in this impoverished offensive environment, matching his career mark. While some players struggle when moving to DH duty — which may reflect their playing at less than full health, as well as some degree of the pinch-hitting penalty — that has not been a problem for Harper thus far. In 121 career PA in the role (including 50 this year and 41 in 2020), still a small sample, he’s hit .308/.397/.538 for a 152 wRC+.

Based on his batted ball results, which aren’t far off those of last year’s marks even given the limited sample, his batting line thus far this season should actually be even better than it is:

Bryce Harper Batted Ball Profile
Year BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2019 399 91.9 13.5% 45.6% .260 .270 .510 .542 .365 .383
2020 150 92.5 17.3% 50.7% .268 .308 .542 .658 .400 .453
2021 360 92.5 18.1% 49.2% .309 .301 .615 .610 .431 .430
2022 56 92.1 16.1% 53.6% .276 .307 .513 .581 .372 .407

Some of that, of course, is related to league-wide conditions. Baseball as a whole is slugging .366, 63 points below its xSLG (according to Tom Tango, the x-stats aren’t recalibrated until the end of the season, so we should expect such gaps to be substantial given the less-bouncy ball and the league-wide use of humidors). Thus, Harper’s 58-point shortfall appears to be par for the course.

If his batted ball stats are pretty typical, Harper’s 7.0% walk rate and 25.6% strikeout rate are not. This is a disciplined hitter with a 16.7% walk rate last year, and a 15.1% career mark, more than double his current rate. Harper’s current 38.5% chase rate is eight points above his career mark and nine points above last year’s mark, and likewise, his in-zone and overall swing rates are up about eight points over last year as well; he’s swinging at 55.6% of pitches overall, which is 9.4 points above his career rate. Since swing rate tends to stabilize around the 60 PA mark, this is notable, and with Harper this fits into a pattern that Eno Sarris highlighted, where a player who’s swinging much more often while being less productive might be pressing. Maybe Harper is trying to prove — to himself and/or his team — that he’s healthy, or maybe he feels more discomfort or pain when checking his swing than when following through. Harper’s strikeout rate and 17.2% swinging strike rate are both about three points above last year’s rates, and if there’s an area where he’s really struggling, it’s that with two strikes he’s hitting .156/.170/.289 (28 wRC+) through 47 PA; he has a 77 wRC+ for his career in such situations.

It is worth noting that Harper is seeing a lot fewer fastballs this year — 45.3% versus last year’s 53.2% according to Statcast, which lumps all fastballs into one bin, and 42.5% versus last year’s 47.7% according to Pitch Info separating out four-seamers. This comes against a backdrop where the league-wide rate has dropped from 36.3% to 34.5%. Maybe that’s something, but then again given that Harper hit .336 with a .710 slugging percentage against fastballs last year, maybe that’s just good old common sense on the part of pitchers.

Since the condition of his elbow isn’t preventing Harper from taking his cuts and remaining productive (even if the shape of his production is a bit different), a stint on the injured list doesn’t appear to be imminent, and the May 3 date that Girardi has mentioned as the earliest that he might return to right field isn’t any kind of hard deadline. Still, his absence from right field carries a bit of a cost, in that the defensive shortcomings of Castellanos, who has started every game there in Harper’s stead, are well documented. For his career, he has -49 DRS, -39 RAA (Statcast), and -31.6 UZR in 4,271.1 innings in right, about three seasons worth, which, yikes even given Harper’s unremarkable work out there last year (-6 DRS, -6 RAA, 2.0 UZR). For the Phillies, the difference will probably be felt the most in terms of runners taking an extra base against Castellanos, whose arm-related component metrics within DRS and UZR are in the red where Harper’s are in the black, though if the latter’s throwing is compromised when he’s out there, that advantage is lost.

As was the case for Mike Trout, Thursday marked a notable 10-year anniversary for Harper: he made his major league debut on April 28, 2012; the date also marked Trout’s return from Triple-A. The two sluggers are inextricably linked by that date and that year’s Rookie of the Year awards, though aside from each banking multiple MVP awards, their paths have since diverged. Trout has basically clinched a Hall of Fame berth already, as he’s compiled 77.7 WAR by our measure and 77.5 by that of Baseball Reference, where he ranks fifth in JAWS among center fielders (71.3) and third in seven-year peak (65.1), behind only Willie Mays and Ty Cobb. Harper (40.4/35.7/38.1) is following a more conventional, age-appropriate path in building his case for Cooperstown. He’s just 44th among right fielders in JAWS, and is 6.7 WAR below the peak standard, but again, it’s worth remembering that he’s only in his age-29 season. His 40.0 WAR through his age-28 season is tied with Giancarlo Stanton for seventh among right fielders, well ahead of Hall of Famers such as Vladimir Guerrero (34.7), Tony Gwynn (33.0), Dave Winfield (32.0), and even Roberto Clemente (30.1). Those rankings don’t include Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, or Frank Robinson, three of the top five in JAWS, because they hadn’t yet played half their games in right field (the threshold I used in Stathead).

Harper’s standing is age-appropriate and provides significant opportunity for improvement. Within his peak score he has four seasons of 4.8 WAR or less, including his 2020 mark of 2.0, so adding to that should be doable. If he reeled off even three 5-WAR seasons and a 4-WAR one between here and 2025, for example, he’d jump to 59.4/39.8/49.6 (22nd among right fielders) through his age-32 season, and would already slot ahead of Gary Sheffield (49.3) and Bobby Bonds (49.5), just below Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero (50.3). Spending significant time at DH would cut into his WAR and slow down his pursuit, but there’s little reason to think his current injury will consign him permanently to that role.

Even as we stare at a calendar that’s about to flip to May, the usual sample size caveats apply. Harper is off to a reasonably strong start, wounded wing and all, and nobody seems to be tremendously worried that his elbow or his occupation of the DH slot are long-term concerns. The same is true in the grand scheme as we celebrate his 10-year anniversary: he’s on an impressive pace if not an extreme one, and we’re lucky that we get to watch.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

His swing is definitely as violent as ever. I believe him that he doesn’t feel it in the batter’s box.

Dag Gummit
2 years ago
Reply to  Ryan119

His nagging elbow pushing him temporarily to the DH reminds me of Ohtani being able to DH while recovering from Tommy John (and unable to pitch or play the field).

I vaguely recall articles explaining then for Ohtani, some amount of it being because he hits opposite the way he throws (which also applies to Harper).