No one is expecting in 2018 for teams to be using rudimentary systems like Marcel for player projections, but you can imagine agents creating something similar for their clients, especially in recent history. Recently while visiting the Hall of Fame I saw Scott Boras’ projections book on Alex Rodriguez, which was used to ink him to a $250 million contract with the Rangers. A similar book is likely to be created for Bryce Harper, which will be a little trickier, mostly because of his on-and-off last few years.
Let’s break out our own rudimentary projections, using some historical comparisons. If we were to break down age-25 stars, outfielders in particular, and find every live ball outfielder who: accumulated more than 20 WAR, had fewer than 100 steals, more than 100 home runs, and has a wRC+ between 130 and 150, that would leave us with Frank Robinson, Duke Snider, Miguel Cabrera (originally an outfielder, remember), Joe Medwick, Reggie Jackson, Jose Canseco, Hank Aaron, and Ken Griffey Jr.
If we were to average the age-26 through 30 WAR, and age-26 through 35 WAR, and age-26 through 40 WAR, then what would we get, and what kind of overall valuation would that hold?
Based on these simple averages, Harper would be projected to produce 31 wins through his next five seasons, 46 wins through age 35, and 52 total wins through age 40, putting his estimated age-40 WAR total at 79 wins, which would be right around the average for Hall of Fame outfielders like Jackson.
This is the kind of projection a Scott Boras would employ because, for the most part, one would want to eschew the larger issue with Harper, which is his health, defense, and inconsistent performance. He has produced 27 rWAR, but 10 of that came in one season, and of his last five seasons, three of them were below 2.
All of this likely assumes health, a change in defensive positioning, an an offensive output of 150 wRC+ per season for the next decade. Is that impossible? Of course not. But improbable? Based on how shaky he looked in the first half, it kind of seems that way.
But, the historical comparison is likely Boras’ best bet, and it will likely pay off. Just think of it intuitively. If you think about every era, there are Hall of Famers in each one. And if you drill down further, those Hall of Famers are usually players who started generally young and began to accrue the counting stats necessary to get there. So when you look at those historical comparisons, only Canseco is the non-Hall of Famer. There is just no historical precedent for a player being that good and then immediately sagging to the point where they can’t tabulate at least baseline Hall of Fame numbers. Even Ken Griffey Jr. had his age-26-30 peak before being mostly average to replacement level for much of his 30s.
And that’s kind of where I stand on him, in general, in even the worst case. If there is a strategic opt-out, per se, you could argue that you will only get the tail-end of Harper’s peak before he opts out and tests the market again. That’s a gamble because if he keeps repeating his poor seasons then he opts in, wasting the advantage. But still, the sell for teams is that you will get the remaining portion of his hopefully lofty peak, enough to make him a Hall of Famer, before he, like many, declines in his mid-30s and fades away.
Unless this era is something undamentally different. The game is younger than it ever has been, so the odds are there will be player who start around age-20 and don’t ever amount to Hall of Fame material, while in yesteryear the only players that stood out that long were generational talents. This isn’t to say Harper isn’t a generational talent, but his career arc is more in doubt than a lot of those players ever were. He is likely to receive a monster deal very soon, and a team is going to cross their fingers that he is more like the historical comparisons than what he actually might become.