The Thoroughly Average Exploits of Bryce Harper

As was the case for the fans an hour north in Baltimore — where franchise cornerstone Manny Machado entered the last year of his own contract — the 2018 campaign has, for Washington supporters, loomed in the distance like a poorly understood Mayan prophecy. It was, of course, Bryce Harper’s final season before entering free agency.

Unlike the Orioles, though, the Nationals were at least likely to provide some solace by remaining the class of the NL East until Harper left to grab his $300 million contract. Unfortunately for residents of the area, that merry scenario has not unfolded as expected. While the the Braves and Phillies seemed unlikely to have completed their rebuilds by the start of the 2018 season, both teams appear to have done exactly that, leaving the Nationals in third place a week from the deadline, six games back and a game below .500.

More surprising than the accelerated schedule of Atlanta and Philadelphia is Harper’s role in the poor season. Even hitting .216, Harper has been far from worthless, recording a .365 on-base and .470 slugging percentage for a 119 wRC+. With some poor defensive numbers added in, the result is a 1.4 WAR in nearly two-thirds of a season. A league-average player is a real contributor, of course, but a league-average Bryce Harper feels a little like Beethoven composing the radio jingle for a local pizza place.

(Historical note: Beethoven’s Der glorreiche Augenblick, Op. 136 isn’t really that far off from being this, but that’s a story for another day on another site — or, more likely, just a Google search.)

ZiPS was the low bidder on Harper coming into the season, projecting only 4.7 WAR from Washington’s slugger, but even that looks like it’s going to be well ahead of his actual result. ZiPS now projects Harper to finish at 3.2 WAR, with the Steamer projections a skosh more optimistic at 3.4 fWAR. That’s a good season, but it’s not a star-level one, let alone the sort of campaign one expects from an MVP-type talent in the prime of his career.

For the Nationals, the timing of Harper’s off-year could hardly be worse. In Harper’s two weakest seasons coming into 2018, 2014 (1.6 WAR) and 2016 (3.0 WAR), the Nationals were fortunate in that they had a margin of victory that would have allowed them to replace Harper with 2018 Chris Davis and still not have changed the final standings. (Yes, I’m aware that this would quite possibly be the worst baseball-related use of a time machine anyone could imagine.)

In 2018, with the Nationals looking up at the top of the division and Harper (relatively) struggling, those wins actually matter. There’s a great deal of swing in those extra wins. Let’s start with the current NL East ZiPS projections, through last night’s games. One thing to note is that ZiPS, from the start of the season, has been more pessimistic than the FanGraphs implementation of ZiPS/Steamer combined when it comes to Washington and more optimistic about the Braves and Phillies. This is the most significant difference between ZiPS and FanGraphs in division projections.

ZiPS NL East Projections, 7/24
Team W L GB PCT DIV% WC% PLAYOFF%
Philadelphia Phillies 89 73 .549 49.0% 19.5% 68.4%
Atlanta Braves 89 73 .549 45.9% 20.0% 65.9%
Washington Nationals 83 79 6 .512 5.1% 6.7% 11.9%
New York Mets 70 92 19 .432 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Miami Marlins 67 95 22 .414 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Now, imagine a world in which Bryce Harper is on pace for a six-win season. That’s hardly a case of far-fetched optimism: Steamer projected him at 5.8 WAR and the fans at 6.5 WAR.

ZiPS NL East Projections, 7/24, Harper Six-Win Pace
Team W L GB PCT DIV% WC% PLAYOFF%
Philadelphia Phillies 89 73 .549 43.9% 20.5% 64.5%
Atlanta Braves 88 74 1 .543 40.9% 20.8% 61.8%
Washington Nationals 86 76 3 .531 15.2% 15.5% 30.6%
New York Mets 70 92 19 .432 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Miami Marlins 67 95 22 .414 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

Those additional three “missing” wins amount to a fifth of a playoff appearance, something that’s a big deal for a team that has good reason to see a shrinking window in subsequent seasons. Normal Harper isn’t enough to singlehandedly fix the problems Washington has, but those wins have never been more sorely missed by a Harper-version of the Nats. Now, just for giggles, what happens with the 2015 Harper?

ZiPS NL East Projections, 7/24, 2015 Harper
Team W L GB PCT DIV% WC% PLAYOFF%
Washington Nationals 89 73 .549 40.7% 22.3% 63.1%
Philadelphia Phillies 88 74 1 .543 30.6% 23.1% 53.7%
Atlanta Braves 88 74 1 .543 28.7% 22.8% 51.4%
New York Mets 69 93 20 .426 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Miami Marlins 66 96 23 .407 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%

If there was ever a time to get 2015 Harper, it was his contract year, even if it buttressed the tired myth of players performing way above expectations in their contract seasons.

The 2018 season is also likely to affect Bryce Harper’s bottom line in his next contract. While there is still a ton to like about Bryce Harper because of his age/talent/history, the future is quite volatile, similar to projecting a hurricane. Projections aren’t really a single point, they’re a whole range of possibilities, and every great year or poor year shifts that range one way or the other. Even if you love Harper as a player — I still do — you’d be crazy to like his future to the exact same degree right now as you did prior to the 2018 season. Sure, a .230 BABIP necessarily involves a lot of bad luck, that number being quite close to the range of an average pitcher’s BABIP as a hitter. But there’s some meat on these bones: Harper’s profile suggests that he should have a lower BABIP than usual. ZiPS uses advanced data on a yearly basis to estimate where BABIP for a hitter ought to be. I usually refer to this as zBABIP. (I assume you know what the z stands for.) zBABIP is less accurate before 2015 due to data availability.

Bryce Harper zBABIP vs. BABIP
Year zBABIP Actual BABIP
2012 .343 .310
2013 .325 .306
2014 .331 .352
2015 .349 .369
2016 .292 .264
2017 .313 .356
2018 .291 .230

Just how much has it cost Harper? At the start of the season, ZiPS projected an eight-year contract for Harper to be valued at $258 million. With 2018’s actual performance and Harper’s rest-of-season, that figure drops considerably thanks to Hurricane Harper’s adjusted track.

Bryce Harper, ZiPS Projections 2019-2026
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS OPS+ WAR
2019 .260 .398 .528 492 100 128 25 1 35 100 113 147 12 5 148 4.5
2020 .258 .399 .539 488 101 126 27 1 36 102 115 150 12 4 151 4.7
2021 .256 .399 .541 477 98 122 26 1 36 100 114 149 11 5 151 4.5
2022 .256 .402 .532 464 95 119 25 2 33 94 113 141 11 4 150 4.3
2023 .256 .400 .532 449 91 115 24 2 32 91 108 132 11 4 150 4.1
2024 .248 .391 .500 432 83 107 23 1 28 82 101 125 11 5 139 3.2
2025 .245 .383 .472 417 76 102 21 1 24 74 93 114 10 5 130 2.5
2026 .239 .372 .453 397 68 95 20 1 21 66 83 102 9 4 122 1.8

In all, ZiPS chops off about $30 million from Harper’s projected value over eight seasons. The good news for Harper is that he remains very young for an MLB free agent, which makes the downside in the projections less alarming to ZiPS; the computer is less likely to believe Harper’s down year is a harbinger of things to come than if he were 30 or 32 right now. He’s also stayed healthy so far, erasing a bit of that uncertainty for a player who had already missed significant time due to injury in three seasons.

Still, there’s something curiously unsatisfying about Bryce Harper’s projections. Yes, those are the projections of a star, but those rookie-year debates of Trout vs. Harper have long been settled firmly in the former’s favor. Despite the obvious talent that you can practically feel in his aura, Harper only truly has one amazing year during which he was both healthy and great, that aforementioned 2015 season. His second-best WAR so far is 4.9, something almost every player would take, but it just feels like there should be more there there. Maybe, on some level, it’s an enormous compliment that not entering every year as the NL MVP favorite is actually a disappointing result.

There’s no team with a more interesting upcoming week than the Washington Nationals. The team has seven more games until the trade deadline. Let’s say they go 2-5 or something going into next Monday’s day off before the July 31st deadline. How does a 51-55 team not seriously consider spending Monday and Tuesday exploring their options for trading Bryce Harper?

We hoped you liked reading The Thoroughly Average Exploits of Bryce Harper by Dan Szymborski!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com 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.

newest oldest most voted
radiohead
Member
radiohead

The Nationals have to strongly consider trading him.

willl
Member
Member
willl

I’ve been saying this for a while.

With an OF of Soto, Robles and Eaton locked down for the next several years, Harper has little value to the Nationals. Trade him now, get a few prospects, and initiate a Yankees 2016 style short-term re-build.

They have an immensely talented core: Turner, Soto, Robles, and Scherzer all feature in the top 50 most trade valuable players to go with Eaton and Strasburg (though with opt-outs). They also have over $100m coming off their books this offseason with the departures of Harper, Murphy, Gonzalez, Wieters, Herrera, Madson, Kelley and possibly Kintzler. They should trade each of those players to the highest bidder this week, and hopefully get some much-needed upper-level pitching prospects in return. And set themselves up for, if the dominoes fall right, another run in 2019.