Welcome to the Dirt, Bryce Harper. How’s Your Elbow?

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski addressed the media on Wednesday at MLB’s GM meetings, before a virus ripped through the league’s front offices and turned a normally convivial event into gastrointestinal Ragnarok.

Speaking as someone who makes frequent use of bathrooms at MLB facilities, and as someone who got knocked out by norovirus earlier this year: Fellas, you gotta wash your hands. I’m not going to break the omerta of the men’s room and name names, but there are too many people who work in baseball who think it’s acceptable to go potty, then leave the room to go around touching stuff without so much as a cursory splash of hand sanitizer. It’s 2023. Grow up. Wash your damn hands.

Where was I? Oh yeah, speaking of making a splash, Dombrowski shared some important news: Bryce Harper is going to be a first baseman from now on.

As you know, Harper made 36 regular-season starts at first base this year, plus 17 more in the playoffs, after returning from UCL reconstruction. Thanks to that bum elbow, he’s played just 68 innings in the outfield since the start of the 2022 regular season. Harper returned from his injury in record time, aided by the fact that splitting time at first base and DH put less stress on his throwing arm than playing in right field would have.

When Harper signed his 13-year contract with the Phillies just before the 2019 season, it was pretty much inevitable that he’d end up as a first baseman/DH at some point before the deal was up. Sure as every animal will eventually evolve into a crab, every aging power hitter will eventually move to first base and/or DH. It’s not ideal for the Phillies that Harper’s injury made this happen in year no. 4 of the contract, and a permanent move to first base is scheduled for year no. 6.

The question of where Harper plays going forward has as much to do with the rest of the Phillies’ roster as it does Harper’s physical condition. The 2022 pennant-winning Phillies had Harper at DH, plus three other key hitters — Rhys Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber, and Nick Castellanos — who would probably also have been DHing in an ideal world. This contributed to some abysmal defensive numbers in 2022 and the first half of 2023.

The ligament injury that prompted Harper’s move to first was not actually his own torn UCL but Hoskins’ torn ACL, suffered in spring training this year. As a measure of how bleak things got for the Phillies at first base: Kody Clemens had the second-most appearances at first of any Phillies player in 2023. Once Harper had time to rebuild even token arm strength and go shopping for a first baseman’s mitt, he was back on the field, and on the dirt.

Then, something miraculous happened: The Phillies’ defense got pretty good. J.T. Realmuto and Brandon Marsh have always been excellent defenders, and the Trea Turner signing allowed Bryson Stott to move from shortstop (where he was fine) to second (where he was one of the best defenders in the league). And with Harper no longer bogarting the DH spot, Schwarber could put his glove on the shelf. Replacing him: rookie center fielder Johan Rojas, whose best tool by far is his glove.

Obviously, getting Harper back in the field and moving Schwarber to DH was huge. But in a perfect world, Harper would be moving back to an outfield corner, with Rojas either backing up Marsh or working as a short-side platoon option.

Dombrowski’s proclamation signifies at least one of three things, or perhaps both: Either Harper is still not physically up to returning to right field, and/or the Phillies have faith in Rojas as an everyday player, and/or the team feels it can find an upgrade in left field.

Though if it were option no. 3, it seems Dombrowski would’ve kept his options open, as it’s easier to find an impact bat at first base than in left. Instead, he explicitly closed the door on Hoskins’ Phillies career. The 30-year-old Hoskins has been a pivotal figure for the Phillies both on and off the field, but he’s eligible for free agency for the first time, and the relationship has apparently run its course. It’s sad to see a popular homegrown player leave like this, but that’s baseball.

Now that we know where Harper is going to play next year, three important questions remain: First, is the plan to let the Marsh-Rojas-Cristian Pache outfield trio ride, as the Phillies did with Hoskins on the shelf this postseason? Second: If not, what form will an upgrade take?

We’ll find answers to those questions in due course. Today, I’m concerned with a third question: What kind of first baseman will Harper be?

If you mostly watch the Phillies, you haven’t seen a whole lot of good first base defense. Hoskins, for all his positive qualities as a human being, is not a good defender. When I went on Effectively Wild during last year’s playoffs, Meg asked if it was stressful to watch Hoskins field, and I said no. That’s because his predecessor, Ryan Howard, was even worse in the field. Hoskins might bobble the occasional grounder, but at least he could throw to the other bases reliably. Before Howard was Jim Thome. The Phillies’ last good defensive first baseman was probably that one season of Carlos Santana, who forced Hoskins out to the outfield and caused more problems than he solved.

The Phillies’ last good defensive first baseman before that might be Rico Brogna. Brogna posted a wRC+ of 82 in his first season in Philadelphia, illustrating why guys who can hit like Howard, Thome, Harper, or Hoskins get so much rope in the field. In short, Harper doesn’t have to turn into Keith Hernandez in order to make a difference defensively.

In his 53-game audition, Harper had his ups and downs. At a position that attracts old guys, former catchers, and players with the Strong Mad Body Type, Harper is an excellent athlete in relative terms. He tends to play shallow and close to the line compared to most first basemen. The Phillies have shaded Rojas over toward right in order to cover for Castellanos, and there’s probably similar logic at play with Harper playing close to the bag.

Because Harper is not only very inexperienced, he’s very enthusiastic. Generally speaking, if he thinks he can reach a groundball, he’ll chase it. Sometimes, that leads to him Elio Chacóning Stott’s Richie Ashburn.

In time, Harper will learn which balls he needs to go after, and which ones he needs to leave for Stott, but in 2023 he looked like someone who had to learn first base in a hurry. Which he was. He was hit-or-miss on scooping low throws out of the dirt, and his throwing motion — on the rare occasion he had to throw — was long, like an outfielder’s.

Given Harper’s legendary work ethic, I expect most of those problems to fix themselves with time. Through the course of the 2023 season, he improved noticeably on his underhand toss to a pitcher covering first base; in the play above, he chucks it haphazardly, like an alien who descended to Earth in the middle of a game of cornhole. By the playoffs, Harper was leading the pitcher, hitting him in stride, and so on.

While he’d spent his entire professional career in the outfield, it’s worth remembering that Harper was a highly decorated college catcher once upon a time. The dirt will return to him soon enough; it’s just a matter of reps. If not, the Phillies can revisit the issue next offseason.

What interests me is Harper’s throwing arm.

Watching Harper this year, knowing he was recovering from a serious elbow injury, I was reminded of an old Bill James essay about first base defensive numbers (i.e. assists and putouts, this being the late 1990s) being more descriptive of the first baseman’s preferences than his skills. James wrote that Bill Buckner would record tons of assists because he couldn’t run; on groundballs to first, he’d insist that the pitcher come over to the cover the bag if at all possible. By contrast, Steve Garvey, who could run but not throw, preferred to make the putout himself.

So I went through the groundballs hit to Harper in 2023; Baseball Savant registered 63 of them between the regular season and playoffs. Harper made a throw on 24 of them, which puts him closer to Garvey than Buckner, but he was by no means an outlier. More interesting: 20 of those 24 throws were underhand.

Harper made 77 throws in total this regular season, not enough to qualify for the Baseball Savant arm strength leaderboard, but MLB’s Mike Petriello was kind enough to pull Harper’s three hardest throws of the regular season for me. He’s no. 3 on the list:

Again, Harper’s chasing down a ball he probably should’ve left for his teammate. That throw came in at a scalding 67.6 mph, for those of you keeping score at home. The Phillies’ broadcast didn’t even show the throw; they cut away to a shot of Brandon Drury jogging in to third.

So yeah, Harper played first base for 53 games last year and basically didn’t throw overhand. By the end of the season, Harper could air it out a little more. The only throw he made that topped 80 mph in the regular season was this attempted double play against the Mets. That one came in at 87.7 mph, which is about 6 mph down from his pre-injury throwing strength. Not only that, the throw wasn’t accurate, pulling Turner off the bag and nearly ending up in left field anyway.

Harper made a couple more overhand throws in the playoffs. This one, in Game 2 of the Wild Card series, was a bit of a lob. It might’ve cost the Phillies a double play, but they were up by seven runs in the top of the seventh at the time, so who cares?

You also might remember Corbin Carroll’s stolen base off Ranger Suárez in Game 7 of the NLCS. Suárez had Carroll picked off, but Carroll beat the throw to second on a bang-bang play. Looking at it again, I’m convinced that a quicker release and stronger throw by Harper gets the out. (I was briefly horrified by the possibility that Harper’s busted wing cost the Phillies the pennant, but then I remembered that Carroll didn’t score in this inning, and the Diamondbacks’ game-winning rally came two innings later.)

Harper was by no means useless with the ball in his hand. Here he is hitting Turner in the numbers to finish off an exquisite 3-6 double play.

Harper was credited with 20 assists in 303 innings in the regular season. For comparison, Clemens — who moonlights as a mopup reliever — had 25 in 309 1/3 innings at first base for the Phillies this year. But the Ohtani double play is the only one I could find that came as the result of an overhand throw.

So Harper had the same number of assists from throwing overhand as he did from having a line drive bounce off his glove.

My favorite part of this clip is Harper’s little fist pump after Stott and Craig Kimbrel pick up the pieces and get the out. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah! We did it!” Moving from the outfield to the infield is tough, as evidenced by a future Hall of Famer turning into a bystander there.

To be honest, I think the Phillies and Harper put one over on everyone in the back half of 2023. First basemen make important throws so infrequently that Harper was basically able to hide behind solo putouts, underhand tosses, and half-strength lobs. But they’re not going to get away with it forever. If Harper is going to stay at first base long-term, he needs not only to refine his defensive game, but regain at least some of his lost arm strength and get comfortable making quicker, more accurate throws. Because if he spends 2024 throwing at speeds that won’t get you pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike, opponents are going to figure out how to exploit that weakness in a hurry. I’d argue Carroll already did.

On the other hand, if Harper’s aversion to throwing is merely a temporary condition, a precautionary attitude to facilitate an early return from surgery, he has the ability to become a superb defender at first base. He went from zero to passable in a matter of weeks, with one arm. Imagine what he could do when healthy, with a full offseason to work on it.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Paul-SF
3 months ago

Well, that was a link I didn’t expect to be inordinately fascinated by this morning.