In 2015, at just 22 years of age, Bryce Harper had one of the greatest offensive seasons of all-time. He hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 homers, and his 197 wRC+ was the 37th-best mark of the past 100 years and the 18th-best since integration, with only Barry Bonds posting a higher number this century. With that season, Harper delivered on whatever hype had been manufactured for him as a teen phenom and No. 1 pick overall, one who made his debut at 19 and had notched two All-Star berths before he turned 21. The best way to show the future potential for achievement is to actually do it in the first place. Harper showed he can be the best player in baseball because for one season, he was the best player in baseball.
In the three seasons since that MVP season, Harper has been more good than great, averaging 3.7 WAR per season. For the sake of a hopefully interesting exercise, let’s pretend we only know about Harper’s last three years. What if we throw out the 2015 season and ignore that Harper was actually so good that he put together All-Star caliber seasons at 19 and 20 years of age? What might that tell us, if anything, about Bryce Harper as well as his future?
To that end, I looked at outfielders who accumulated between 8 WAR and 14 WAR (Harper was at 11.2) and a wRC+ between 120 and 140 (Harper: 132) from the age of 23 through 25 from 1973 to 2008. I then eliminated those players who had below a 2.5 WAR or above a 6.0 WAR at 25 years old. This is the resulting group from age-23 through age-25, along with Harper.
What we have above isn’t a perfect match Harper, but in terms of age, position, and overall production, we have a decent set to work with. Perhaps the first question we might have is how those players performed at age-26, the age Harper will be next season.
More than half of the players had good or better seasons with another third coming in close to average, although Ellis Valentine and Lee Mazzilli came in below replacement-level. On average, the group comes in just a touch below their average performances from age-23 through age-25. As for the aging process, the group stayed roughly the same for three years, remaining pretty close to average for the late-20s and early 30s before dropping a bit more in the mid-30s.
There are a lot of different ways to take this information. One might be wariness of the aging process and forecasting deals 10 years into the future. Several players didn’t even make it to their late-20s as productive players. On the other hand, Harper’s young age means that the decline of the contract never gets too far down when it comes to expected production. Another viewpoint might focus on the individual player names and note that Harper compares pretty well to some Hall of Famers. The table below shows the production of the comps above from age-26 through age-35.
The bare-bones look might examine the average and see a projected contract of close to $200 million. There’s also, based on this group, a little bit better than a one-in-five shot at Hall of Fame-level production with a roughly 50% chance at being worth a $300 million contract over the next 10 years. Opt-outs are going to drop that value some, as a few of the top results lose a bit of their value.
The best way to look at these comps is to think of them as Bryce Harper’s floor. We’ve taken some of the very best attributes of Harper — namely his young debut and his great MVP season — and then eliminated them. Despite this elimination, he still resembles a few Hall of Famers and some Hall of Very Good-types. Here’s what the group above looks like through Age-25 with Harper as a comparison.
There are so few players like Bryce Harper in baseball history that it is tough to find a lot of good comparisons. In the past 100 years, there have only been 16 players within five WAR of Harper and also within 20% of his plate appearances. Of those 15 other players, 11 are in the Hall of Fame. Manny Machado is another player on that list, with the others being Jim Fregosi, Cesar Cedeno, and Vada Pinson. The 14 players averaged 37 WAR from age-26 through age-35, with eight of the 11 players who played since 1947 hitting that average.
There are even fewer comparable players in history who have hit free agency heading into their age-26 season. If we look at the comps from the beginning of the post where we ignore important, relevant facts, Harper is merely worth a $200 million investment. If we look at the last batch of comps or apply his five-win projection forward with aging, he might be worth $400 million to $500 million. There’s going to be considerable downside to the contract Harper requires, and any opt-outs are going to remove some of the best-case scenarios, but there is almost as much upside in Harper as there has been in any free agent we’ve ever seen, Alex Rodriguez excepted, because we don’t have to guess at what Harper is capable of. Combine those abilities with his age, and the team that nabs Harper isn’t just contending with the risk of a potential albatross; they are also adding the possibility of greatly exceeding the value of his contract.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.