To Bryce Harper, A Cautionary Tale

Photo: AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

Photo: AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

When I was 16 years old, I was the starting 2nd baseman for my high school’s varsity team, just getting into the swing of things in a new environment. When Bryce Harper was 16 years old, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated being touted as the biggest prospect in the history of the sport; our version of LeBron James. He could throw harder than 95 mph, had reportedly hit a ball 570 feet, and left high school early so that he could enter the draft as a 17 year old. Scouts, sports broadcasters, and fans alike were predicting a Hall of Fame career for the teenager, setting the bar as high as possible. Fast-forward to 2014 and things haven’t gone the way that most had predicted for Harper. He’s currently on the DL, and has already lost significant time in his young career due to injury. We have yet to see what a healthy and full season of Harper can do, but with what he’s done so far in his career, his ceiling is still as high as ever.

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter @TheOriginalBull and hit the jump to see what I have to say about Harper, his future career, and what to do with him as a fantasy owner.

I’d like to start by comparing Harper’s 19-year old season to some other notable 19-year old sluggers. As you can see from the table below, Harper compares well to these players, and in some cases actually outperformed them. Not only did he lead this group in runs scored and homeruns, but also managed to produce the highest WAR of any of the listed players; which consists of 4 Hall of Famers and a sure fire inductee in Ken Griffey Jr.

Aged 19-season

Harper’s first year was undoubtedly impressive, but as I’ve said before, looking at one season really doesn’t tell much of a story, so let’s take a look at how his next season stacked up against the same players.

Aged 20-season

While the rest of the group (apart from Robin Yount) began to pass Harper in these statistical categories, he did play in 21 fewer games from the previous season, resulting in a decrease of 109 at-bats. Regardless of that however, Harper still had a great second season, especially for a 20-year-old kid. He managed to hit 20 homeruns, only 2 fewer than the year before, improved all of his rate statistics, and increased his OPS+. Even with a reduced season, Harper showed his ability to grow and build upon his enormous talent. Normally my articles focus on advanced metrics (which I will do in this article), but there’s another aspect to Harper’s game that needs to be addressed.

If you’ve ever played a team sport yourself, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “giving 110%” or something along those lines. While this is a popular saying (albeit one that never has and never will make any sense), the fact of the matter is that it sometimes makes sense to take it easy on certain plays. In case you forgot, the reason that Harper played in only 118 games last year is because he ran straight into a wall, injuring his knee and causing him to miss 34 games as a direct result.

After something like that, you’d think that the Nationals would tell Harper to tone it down, and take it easy when he can. However, with the addition of Matt Williams (nicknamed the Big Marine), taking it easy is not an option; and on April 19th Harper was benched due to his lack of hustle. Williams was quoted as saying “It was the inability to run 90 feet … He had to come out of the game. We made an agreement, his teammates made an agreement: When we play the game … we hustle at all times. We play the game with intensity, with willingness to win.” The problem I have with this statement isn’t the fact that Williams wants his players to hustle down the line, but rather that he’s already gone back on his words. Just over a month later, on May 26th, Wilson Ramos grounded out to the Marlins pitcher and simply gave up running half way to first base. But for some strange reason, Ramos was allowed to remain in the game, even with his glaring lack of hustle.

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If I was Harper and had seen this play unfold, I would be confused and angry. This is a clear double standard as Ramos is obviously a member of the Nationals, yet for some reason does not have to “hustle at all times”. The most important thing for Harper, and all players for that matter, is to stay on the field, and over the course of a 162 game season sometimes that means he’ll need to take it easy on routine plays. The best example of this concept is undoubtedly Ken Griffey Jr. In his career, Griffey missed a total of 525 games that were directly attributable to an injury. If he had played in just 85% of those games, based off of his AB/G and HR/AB rate, he would have hit 104.98 more homeruns. If you factor that into his career, Griffey would have finished with 734 total big fly’s, good for 3rd all time. This isn’t to say that Griffey had a bad career, because that would be one of the dumbest statements ever uttered in the history of baseball, but rather to point out the “what if” hanging over his career; and this is the fear that people have with Harper. In his first 3 seasons in the Majors, Harper has already missed 82 games due to injury, while Griffey only missed 39, causing many to wonder what his future will look like.

But enough with criticizing Williams’ approach, and let’s look at some of Harper’s advanced metrics, starting with his Isolated Power.  *For Harper’s 2014 season, I used the Oliver Projections as he only played in 22 games before his injury.

ISO

As you can see from this chart, apart from Ott’s ridiculous age 20-season where he had an ISO of .306 (excellent is considered .250), Harper compares very well to these players, and ranks above all of them for his age 19-season. Even if we weren’t comparing Harper to these HOF caliber players, his ISO is still incredible as he hovered above the .200 mark for his first two years, which by Fangraphs’ standards is considered great. If you could guarantee that a certain player would have an ISO of .200 every year, there wouldn’t be a GM in baseball who would pass on the opportunity to have that player.

Now let’s take a look at how Harper compares for wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created). *As before, I WRCused the Oliver Projection system for Harper’s 2014 season. According to Fangraphs, an excellent wRC+ is 120, and Harper has already produced seasons above that mark at 121 and 137. No matter who Harper is compared to, his numbers are above average and bode well for the future. The fact that he’s been comparable to some of the greatest hitters to ever play the game is just frosting on the cake at this point.

Finally, since I’ve mentioned the Oliver Projection system a couple times now, let’s see how they project the next 5 years of his career (including the current 2014 season).

Oliver Projections

The Oliver Projection system still see’s Harper as a fantastic player, and one who has the ability to do serious damage when he’s healthy; but unfortunately that’s been the biggest problem for him in his young career. If you can bear to put up with the number of days he’s spent on the DL, I highly recommend keeping him as he still has incredible potential. It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 21 years old, and until recently was the youngest player in MLB (Rougned Odor now holds the title). The biggest question going forward is whether or not he can stay on the field, and unfortunately there aren’t any projection systems for that. If you’re of the opinion that Harper is going to keep running straight into walls, then it might not be the worst idea in the world to see what you can get for him. I’d recommend waiting until he comes back from his injury and shows that he’s back to his normal production before doing so however. Because once he’s done that, and if you’re still inclined to trade him, you should be able to bring back a king’s ransom for him.  For Harper and his fantasy owners’ sake, here’s to hoping that Williams will ease up and realize that grinding Harper physically will only lead to fewer wins for his team, and a potential “what if” career for the young slugger.

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