Amidst the Nationals disappointing season, Bryce Harper has solidified himself as one of the best hitters in the game. Despite the Nats losing player after player to injury, and a pitching staff that, at the back end, has largely underwhelmed, Harper has been a stalwart in Washington's often anemic lineup and is posting an offensive season for the ages.
Going into Thursday night's game, Harper was hitting .341/.472/.669 with an NL leading 41 home runs. He has amassed nearly a 10 fWAR, and has altogether hit over 100 percent better than league average, with a wRC+ of 205.
People like round numbers; it's the reason 500 (home runs), 3,000 (hits) and 20 (wins, ack!) leave an impression on many fans. Granted, these are often distractions that take away from the context or impact a player had on his team, but no one is denying that a 500 career home run hitter is special. Marrying weighted runs and whole numbers creates something wholly special, and takes a gifted player to post such superb value. Here's a look at the company Bryce Harper will join should he finish the next week and a half over the 200 wRC+ mark.
Babe Ruth posted a wRC+ mark of 200 or above ten times in his career. Ten! He was so much better than the rest of the league there were seasons he slugged more home runs than entire teams. In 1920 the Babe hit 54 home runs to the St. Louis Browns' 50 and in 1927 he crushed 60 to the Philadelphia Athletics' 56 homers. Prior to the Babe, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, and Ty Cobb each accomplished the 200 wRC+ feat, and each made their own impact on the game, but not to the extent of Ruth.
The Great Bambino revolutionized the game and mastered hitting while the modern game was still in its relatively early stages. Since the 1920s, only six other players hit well enough to post a 200 wRC+.
Ted Williams posted a wRC+ over 200 six times in his career --- 1941 / 1942 / 1946 / 1947 / 1955 / 1957 (note: he played in only 98 games in 1955). He was 23 years old in 1941 when he dominated the league posting a 221 wRC+. That season, Teddy Ballgame won the batting title with his fabled .406 average, hit for power leading the league in home runs with 37, and reached base at a .553 clip (Roy Cullenbine came in second in OBP with a .452 on base percentage).
As an encore, Williams posted a 209 wRC+ in 1942. After which, there was a slight disruption....something about saving Europe from a genocidal despot. Post WWII, Williams got back on his figurative horse, and did it all again posting wRC+ of 215 and 207, not missing a beat.
The 1940s were dominated by Williams in the American League, with Stan Musial showing off some talent of his own in the National League. In 1948, Stan the Man posted a 201 wRC+ as part of an 11.1 fWAR season ---- his best season in St. Louis. ‘48 was a great year at the plate for Musial who put up his best slash line stats of his career (.376/.450/.702) as well as his highest single season home run total (39).
Both Williams and Musial played through the 1950s, but Mickey Mantle took the torch as the new dominating young hitter of the decade. In 1956, Mantle led the league in numerous offensive categories including home runs, batting average, and slugging percentage. Although Ted Williams put up a better OBP, The Mick put up a wRC+ of 202.
Mantle hit even better in 1957, putting up a 217 wRC+, but the aforementioned Williams bested him in every slash line category and hit more home runs. We had two hitters at the 200 mark, then there was a drought.
No player crossed the 200 mark through the 60s, 70s, or 80s. While it was hardly a ‘dead ball' era, there didn't exist a truly dominant hitter (or two, or three) as there had been 30s, 40s, and 50s.
1994 changed the offensive landscape, and power hitting was back on top again. Two players finished the strike-shortened season each with a wRC+ of 205: Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas.
As much fun as it would be to celebrate the offensive renaissance, highlighted by these two sluggers, the work stoppage overshadowed the statistics, standings, and eventually the World Series. Thomas played in only 113 games to Bagwell's 110, and the reality of it is we'll never know if they would have kept pace through the end of September.
Baseball hit a pretty damaging bump in the road due to their labor problems and unbeknownst to us at the time, 1995 would mark the unofficial beginning of chemically-induced period of high octane offense in which a surge of powerhouse sluggers would descend.
For some, 1998 marks the year baseball won many of it's forsaken fans back to the game. Attendance returned to the numbers witnessed in 1993, in part because of the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that swept the nation. McGwire won the home run race and also took home the highest wRC+ in the game at 205. To show how dominant hitters were that season, Sosa's 66 home runs put him in sixth place in wRC+ that season.
The era of high offense continued well into the 2000s, when Barry Bonds became an absolute monster (both at the plate and as a metaphor for his physical stature). From 2001 through 2004, Bonds was easily the best hitter in baseball ------ and perhaps the best hitter ever. No one had put up numbers like those since Babe Ruth outperformed teams in the pre-integration 1930s.
The offensive environment is exceptionally different now than it was in the early to mid 2000s. Whether it's the performance enhancing drug testing programs MLB sanctions or the ebb and flow of dominant pitching being developed (it's likely a combination of these and other factors) offense is at the lowest it's been in recent memory.
Yet here we are, analyzing a player who in his age-22 season is about to join a class of some legendary MLB players. Harper isn't quite there yet ----- the Nationals still have 11 games to play, but Harper is close to moving onto one of, if not the greatest, list of offensive accomplishments in the history of the game. Regardless of how the Nats finish the year it's worth noting there's definitely something special going on in DC.