Bryce Harper is playing like an MVP this year. As of this writing, he leads the National League in slugging percentage, OPS, wRC+ (by 17 points) and is a hair behind his teammate Anthony Rendon for the league lead in WAR. He’s spectacular. He has shaken off the worries of a year ago, when some people thought his 2017 MVP campaign might have been the outlier. Turns out he really is the destructive force we were promised when he was still in high school.
The doubt was understandable, though; last year was just an odd time for him, in so many ways. Aside from the disappointing batting line and power numbers, and a possible injury nagging him all season, Harper also became stolen-base crazy out of nowhere, attempting 31 in the 2016 campaign. What’s the deal?
Outside of 2016, Harper has never attempted more than 24 SBs. That was when he was a spry 19-year-old, not a grizzled veteran. Nineteen-year-olds are supposed to steal bases. They’re full of youthful energy and need to prove themselves. Harper’s drop in attempts as he aged makes sense, especially because he’s never been particularly great at them, owning a career 68 percent success rate. Since his rookie year his attempts have fallen, from 15 to four, then up to 10 when he won the MVP. Then, out of nowhere, 31 in 2016.
His stealing proclivities looked like he was following a similar path to Mike Trout for his career at first. Trout, you’ll remember, stole 49 bags his rookie year, because he can do anything in the world and rookies are supposed to steal bases. He had his fill as a the league’s best base thief though, and decided to become more of a power hitter, and Trout hasn’t tried more than 40 times since. Still a high number in this age, but certainly not what he’s capable of if he really focused on basestealing. Harper was never as good at swiping, and sensibly backed off as he started to crush baseballs more. Until last year.
My first thought was, perhaps Harper realized that his year wasn’t going as well as the previous. Maybe he began pressing at the plate following that May weekend series in Chicago where he had the bat taken out of his hands, and that pressing translated to the basepaths. My assumption was, the attempts would climb as the season wore on and things looked more and more bleak. As bleak as a 115 wRC+ can, anyway. Unfortunately:
Harper Stolen Bases vs. OBP and wRC+
His best month at the plate led to his best work on the basepaths. As his problems at the plate mounted, so too his getting thrown out. When he had that BABIP-driven bump in August, his stolen bases jumped, though that followed a poor offensive yet theft-full July where. But why?
One answer might be, when you’re on-base, you have more opportunities for stolen bases. It therefore stands to reason that the higher OBP months translated to more attempts. Harper’s highest OBP by month came in May at .422 (driven majorly by that silly series in Chicago), followed by April at .408 and August with .398. He was perfect in August, though with only three steals. His April was great in every way, and portends a future we never saw, where he stole 30 bases and blasted 40 home runs. May was... less good for him steal-wise. His offense was in the tank in general, and he had his worst month on the basepaths. Surely there’s something there.
This is not to say he was much more aggressive on the basepaths in general last year than he has been in years past. He took the extra base as a runner 57 percent of the time in 2016, precisely the same rate as in 2015 and four points better than his career average. Interestingly, it’s fallen this year to only 43 percent. Odd, considering the amount of hitting talent in the order behind him. But that could actually be the reason.
When you have teammates in your lineup that are sixth, eleventh, and nineteenth in baseball in wRC+, and two of them hit right behind you, maybe you take less risks on the basepaths. If Harper singles, I’d almost prefer he stop at second when Daniel Murphy or Anthony Rendon or Ryan Zimmerman single, so the next guy can knock a bomb or a gapper. Why risk outs? You only have 27 of them. Last year the guys that drove Harper in the most were Rendon (19 times), the departed Wilson Ramos (15) and Murphy (10). This year, Rendon (10) continues to drive in Harper, but he trails Murphy (19), and is also third behind Ryan Zimmerman (15). What a difference a year, and the resurrection of Zimmerman’s career, makes.
Which is really the whole crux of Harper and his stolen base blip. It was a weird off year for him, and the way he approaches the game informs on how it turned out. I hate to start spitting out supposition, but if there's one thing Harper is, it's max effort, 100 percent all the time. He is very much the "do anything to win" type, at the expense of his own body. Remember when he barreled into the outfield wall and knocked himself senseless trying to make a catch a few years back? In the grand scheme of things, the team would have been better off had he not done that, but he wanted it in the moment. He’s realized that, some.
Last year though, he was struggling at the plate and wanted to do what he could to help the team win, which meant stealing bases. It didn't actually work in a numbers sense, since he was only stealing at a 65 percent clip. Typically you want an 80+ percent rate to be an offensive positive. But Harper doesn't operate like that. Maybe he felt he was doing something right, and a first year manager wasn’t about to stop the reigning MVP, even if it is Dusty Baker. He wasn't hitting bombs. he wasn't even hitting doubles all that much, but he was getting on base at a .373 clip, and there were two or three guys hitting behind him with an OPS+ over 100. Trea Turner was killing it too, but he was the leadoff man. The pitching was insane and led to 95 wins, but the offense still wants to be involved. Since Harper had been the offense a year ago, and was expected to produce, it makes sense he took increasing risks on the bases.
If Harper keeps hitting like this (and at this point it’s increasingly clear this is the normal for him) we're unlikely to ever see such a basestealing outburst again. It’s weird he’s only 24, but he’s truly a veteran, and an offensive dynamo. He has no reason to even try to steal bases, and he's surrounded by such talent right now and for the near future that it would be counterproductive to throw outs away on the basepaths. Perhaps if he could steal like Paul Goldschmidt, or efficiently like Pujols in his prime, that would be different. But he can’t, or not yet anyway. He just hits the ball real hard, and gets on base constantly. He should stay in his lane of conventional destruction. It’s nice to see a true superstar with such a dirt-baggy approach to the game. Just so long as he realizes, and his manager realizes, it’s not really necessary. Not all the time.