It seems that we’ve been hearing about Bryce Harper since the Nixon administration. HarperHype reached its pinnacle when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at sixteen. The headline proclaimed him "Baseball’s Chosen One." That’s quite a bit of expectation to heap onto a teenager but Harper still managed to crack the league with the Nationals at 19. What were YOU doing when you were 19? Probably not hitting bombs and putting together a 4.6 fWAR season while winning the Rookie of the Year Award. What a slacker you are. Perhaps because he didn’t immediately turn into Joe DiMaggio and still hasn’t done so, Harper is often found on lists of most "overrated" players. Heck, the ballplayers themselves call Harper overrated. Is Bryce Harper just all talk and projection? Is he merely good and not great? Is he – WOAH, look at that, Bryce hit a homer!
Sorry about the interruption. I’ll be sure to talk to him about interrupting our very serious baseball business. Who needs that arrogant kid with the ridiculous (and oh so very silky smooth) hair anyway? To conduct our study and determine whether or not Harper is just a lot of hype hiding inside a merely "good" player, let’s talk about what he’s done since being called up. Harper has cobbled together 10.5 fWAR, not including the game currently (I’m writing this on the afternoon of May 5th, or "Wednesday" as you may call it) ongoing. 10.5 fWAR isn’t bad for someone who’s going to turn 23 this year. 10.5 fWAR in 385 games isn’t bad either. Over that span he’s hit .270/.355/.465 (.356 wOBA) and 60 homers. Well, 61, if you want to include the one from just now. Let’s call it 61 since that counts. He’s also stolen 31 bases, the ruffian. DRS (22) and UZR/150 (2.8) regard him as a net positive in the outfield too. So I guess we can concede that Harper has some of that "natural talent stuff" that Sports Illustrated claimed he possessed. He’s done all this before turning 23. He’s younger than Kris "Savior of Wrigleyville" Bryant, who has only 77 big league plate appearances to his name as of press time. But is he the Chosen One? Will he bring balance to the baseball Force? Does he know Kung Fu?
Dangit Bryce, I’m trying to write here. Make that 62 homers. Dumb kid ruining my timing. Where was I? Oh, right. Bringing balance to the Force. So here’s the thing. Harper is decidedly good at baseball. But how does he become amazing? He’s certainly no Mike Trout. Mike Trout compiled 10.5 fWAR in 2013 alone. Should we demand our money back on Harper?
Absolutely not. Let’s turn off the Hot Take-omatic for a few minutes and really look at Bryce Harper. As I mentioned and you know very well, Harper is 22 and was entered the Majors at 19. Most prospects don’t enter the league until 22 or 23. Players like Harper and Trout are freaks of nature to be good enough to get called up that young, and we’re fools if we think a headline placed on a player at age 16 is a promise of a Hall of Fame career. That’s not to say that Harper is already playing himself out of the Hall. For fun, here’s a list of the top 15 fWAR totals for players through their age-22 season since the start of the expansion era (1961).
|Player||fWAR through age-22 season 1961-2015|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||19.7|
Harper is still in the midst of his age-22 season, of course. He’ll almost certainly pass Alomar and Fregosi, and barring a major injury he’ll catch at least Ripken and Pujols as well. That whole list of names is quite impressive and chock full of talent.
Harper is also still improving his game, because he’s developing in real time at the highest level. Including Wednesday’s game, Harper is sporting a very respectable 20.8 percent walk rate. That’s by far the highest it’s ever been, at any level. Why is that? Pitch F/X heatmaps show that he’s not being pitched to all that differently this year so the change is on his end. The Pitch F/X data on FanGraphs says that Harper (entering Wednesday’s game, data not updated at press time) has cut his swing rate from 50.9% in 2014 to 43.2 percent in 2015. His rate on balls out of the zone is 25.8 percent, down from 33.2 percent. His rate on balls in the zone is 67.3 percent, down from 72.5 percent. Harper has become far more disciplined. According to ESPN, Harper has seen 4.41 pitches plate appearance this year. Last year, that number was 3.90. Because baseball is weird, he’s also striking out at a 28.8 percent rate and that’s slightly higher than 2014’s 26.3 percent in limited action. Of his 36 strikeouts this year, 30 have been swinging.
That doesn’t mean Harper is whiffing more. In fact, he’s making more contact. On the whole, his contact rate before Wednesday’s action was 77.1 percent, which is up from 72.7 percent in 2014. On pitches outside the zone, when actually does swing he makes contact 58.4 percent of the time. He only did that at a 54.3 percent rate last year. When a pitch is in the zone and he swings, he makes contact at an 87.9 percent clip. In 2014 that number was 82.9 percent. That strikeout rate is going to regress, if you’re looking for something to take out of these numbers. It’s as high as it is due to the exceptionally small pool of data we’re working with for the season. Harper is making more contact, and by simple logic he’s whiffing less. The strikeouts will come down.
Speaking of contact, there’s some contact. Insider sources tell me that that was Harper’s third homer of the day, and the third time the arrogant twerp has interrupted my article. Those same sources say that Harper is now hitting .265/.416/.561 (!) on the year, and he has a .410 wOBA and a 164 wRC+. Finally, the sources conclude that everybody needs to realize that Bryce Harper isn’t a finished product, that anybody who gets this much publicity and money from such a young age is likely to come off as slightly big-headed, and he’s still quite likely to have an incredibly ridiculous career. So lighten up you traditionalist sourpusses.
Their words, not mine.
. . .
All stats and data courtesy of ESPN, FanGraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and BrooksBaseball.net.
Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and covers the Yankees at Pinstripe Alley. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.