Stupid Money is Smart Money: A Tale of Bryce Harper

Well, they did it. The Philadelphia Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract, reported with no opt-outs, opt-ins, options, opt-arounds, or any other sort of contract-related shenanigans. The Phillies have been circling this offseason in their diaries for years, the winter that a flood of awesome free agents would hit the market and the team could splash some cash and add a build-around star or two.

The plan largely went as designed. The Phillies went about their rebuilding business in a disciplined and careful fashion, seizing an opportunity or two as they popped up along the way (for example, a depressed market for Jake Arrieta and the availability of Jean Segura in a trade). Not all the free agents who hit free agency this winter did so in as exciting a manner as expected — players like Josh Donaldson and Dallas Keuchel saw their stocks drop, and Clayton Kershaw didn’t even test the market — but Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still tested the waters, with both expecting to end up with contracts near or exceeding $300 million in total value, and $30 million a year.

It was actually conceivable that the Phillies would end up with both Harper and Machado, though this bit of free agent fan fiction didn’t quite come to pass. Machado never seemed as excited about the possibility of going to Philadelphia as fans hoped even though he would have been just as useful in Philadelphia as Harper, given that the great Maikel Franco breakout appears not to be happening. With Machado gone to the Padres — who would’ve thought that two years ago — Harper was the team’s last real chance to spend that “stupid money” they were promising.

And it’s not actually stupid.

Bryce Harper is most likely to play right field for the Phillies, with Andrew McCutchen in left, and Odubel Herrera the long-term incumbent in centerfield. ZiPS was more keen on Nick Williams than Steamer was, but only to the tune of .256/.308/.448, which comes out to a 1.4 WAR, assuming 543 plate appearances. Williams, or whatever combination of Williams and Aaron Altherr or Dylan Cozens you can concoct, was the stopgap until the Phillies found something better and something better they’ve found.

ZiPS doesn’t have the back years of the contract for Harper at the same level of detail as Machado, but less a function of ZiPS thinking Harper will age poorly and than it is the fact that a lot about Harper remains speculative. He’s not a player next to whom you can simply write six or seven WAR a year in permanent marker. Harper likely has greater upside than Machado in that he could very well become an eight-win player a year, something both ZiPS and I agree on. But he’s also more likely than Machado to be a yearly two-win player over the course of his contract. Thirteen years is an extremely long time, after all. The fact remains that Harper still only has one of those crazy MVP seasons everyone thought would be yearly occurrences when he broke into the league to his name.

The Phillies have largely protected themselves from these outcomes by not including an opt-out clause for Harper. Opt-outs are essentially player options by a different name. If the Phillies could know with 100% certainty that Bryce Harper would average four wins a year, they probably wouldn’t mind including opt-outs in the contract. But there’s a lot we don’t know about how good Bryce Harper will be long-term, and an opt-out would leave the Phillies paying for the downside risk while losing Harper early if he displays the upside he’s capable of. At least this way, they’re sure to enjoy that upside.

ZiPS projects Harper to be worth approximately $289 million over the course of his contract, with almost all that value over the first ten years of the deal. Given that the Phillies are a competitive team, likely matching their best seasons with Harper’s prime, ten years, $330 million would be a perfectly reasonable move for the Phillies to make. And if ten years, $330 million is a reasonable contract, then $330 million with Harper throwing in three additional years as a gratuity certainly would be.

On a team level, ZiPS comes in with Harper as roughly a three-and-a-half to four win upgrade for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019. These wins are very likely of the high-leverage variety given the dynamics of the NL East. Right now on the FanGraphs Depth Charts, which don’t (yet) reflect the effects of the Bryce Harper signing, four of the NL East’s five teams project to win between 83-90 games. The Phillies aren’t adding generic wins; they’re adding wins that, especially in 2019, will very likely play a large part in determining the team’s fate. Teams will (and should) pay a lot more for win 85 than win 65 or win 105, and the Phillies are almost certainly cognizant of that.

To get a better look at the 2019 odds, I’m using the ZiPS simulator, with the up-to-date ZiPS projections and default depth charts reflecting those on FanGraphs. (As an aside, since I’m in charge of maintaining the depth charts now, you’ll tend to see more agreement between the FanGraphs standings and the canon-ZiPS standings from here on out.) First off, let’s check out the divisional standings as of this morning.

ZiPS Projected Standings – 2019 NL East
Washington Nationals 89 73 .549 46.9% 22.4% 69.3% 6.1% 0.0%
Atlanta Braves 86 76 3 .531 23.2% 23.7% 46.8% 3.2% 0.0%
Philadelphia Phillies 84 78 5 .519 17.1% 20.8% 37.9% 2.4% 0.0%
New York Mets 83 79 6 .512 12.8% 18.3% 31.2% 1.9% 0.0%
Miami Marlins 59 103 30 .364 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 57.0%

The first thing you may notice is that the win totals for all the teams are a few less than you would have thought from the rough WARtoons that went up with the team-by-team projections. And you’d be noticing correctly! Once the teams are in the simulation and the game-by-game schedule is played out, one that reflects the challenges of the NL East with four playoff-realistic contenders, everybody beats each other up and loses a few games that they wouldn’t if each played in a league-average division.

Washington is projected as the favorite, but isn’t an overwhelming one, and all four contenders were somewhere between 1-in-3 and 2-in-3 to make the playoffs, or thereabouts. But what happens if we add Bryce Harper to the mix?

ZiPS Projected Standings – 2019 NL East (Harper to Phillies)
Washington Nationals 89 73 .549 38.1% 26.2% 64.2% 5.4% 0.0%
Philadelphia Phillies 88 74 1 .543 34.4% 26.5% 61.0% 4.9% 0.0%
Atlanta Braves 85 77 4 .525 17.9% 23.6% 41.5% 2.7% 0.0%
New York Mets 83 79 6 .512 9.6% 17.1% 26.7% 1.5% 0.0%
Miami Marlins 58 104 31 .358 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 59.8%

With just a hair under four wins, his addition is enough to double the Phillies divisional probability, adding nearly a fifth of a divisional title and a quarter of a playoff spot. While these changes may sound underwhelming without anything to compare them against, that’s nearly the realistic ceiling of what any team can add to their playoff hopes with one big score while playing in a competitive division. There’s no Tom Brady or LeBron James of baseball, and even Mike Trout can’t carry a team like a top basketball player or quarterback can. It’s part of the reason that there’s no realistic change to the collective bargaining agreement that will bring back big contracts for Adam Joneses or Curtis Granderson; teams are simply too aware of the fact that role players play a relatively small part in the eventual success of their teams.

If the Phillies didn’t sign Bryce Harper, the “what-ifs?” surrounding this franchise would be a long-term theme, especially if the team didn’t eventually win a World Series championship with their current core. Landing Bryce Harper helps ensure that the Phillies are best able to make all this rebuilding actually matter in the end. And isn’t winning the whole point of rebuilding?

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

The die is cast. Looks like the NL East is going to be a real dog fight, except for the sad sack Marlins of course.