Bryce Harper’s MVP-winning 2015 feels like lightyears ago.
This was the year that Harper finally lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon him when he was drafted first overall in 2010. Over 654 plate appearances — the first time in his career in which he had more than 600 — Harper slashed .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and 99 RBIs. His 9.3 fWAR led all of baseball.
At the time, this was meant to be the beginning of Harper’s excellent career, not the pinnacle. Three years later, and Nationals fans still yearn for the days when Harper was hitting .300, leading baseball in home runs and helping to carry Washington to the playoffs, something they actually didn’t do during Harper’s 2015.
We’ve come to the year that Nationals fans have dreaded since he first broke into the big leagues — his contract year. It’s common knowledge that Harper is going to be a free agent after this year, and his age (25) combined with his ability should make him one of the most sought after free agents in a long time. There are some that project Harper could make over $500 million.
But, before we even get to that point, Harper still has his job to do in the nation’s capital. And, so far, he has struggled, at least by his standards. Harper is slashing .214/.366/.471 with 23 home runs, 53 RBIs and a 120 wRC+. What a weird line.
Harper is second in the National League in home runs and has a 19.0 percent walk rate, tying his career high from that 2015 season. If you disregarded Harper’s line, but knew just that fact, you would probably be thinking that Harper is having an MVP-caliber campaign. But here he is, at a measly 1.5 fWAR, 81st out of 164 qualified position player batters. In terms of WAR, Harper is playing in the 51st percentile of all players in the Majors when he really should be playing in the 95th percentile — or better.
He is such a tantalizing player. We expect him to be among the best, and when he’s not, he’s a disappointment. But this season, Harper should be among the best, and I’m not just saying that using his talent level as a comparison. The underlying numbers say that Harper should be significantly better than he has played.
That’s what Bryce Harper’s slash line should read, according to Baseball Savant’s expected batting average and slugging percentage marks. That .946 OPS would put Harper at 10th in the Majors in the statistic, tied with Yankees’ slugger Aaron Judge. His current .836 mark ranks 45th. His expected wOBA is .395, which again would rank in the top 15 in the Majors. His current wOBA of .352 is 52nd.
Harper could be dealing with an extreme case of bad luck this season — that is certainly a possibility. A .223 BABIP would suggest that is the case. But sustaining that over the 410 plate appearances he has had is not easy to do, especially with a 45.4 percent hard hit rate, 11.3 percentage points above the MLB-average. Harper should not have been able to sustain as low of a BABIP as he has had for this long — that seems outside the realm of possibility.
Worst BABIPs in baseball
|Hard Hit Rate
|Hard Hit Rate
Harper’s .223 BABIP is the sixth-worst in the Majors, but among the players with the 10 lowest BABIPs in baseball, his hard-hit rate is the second-highest and his xwOBA is the highest.
So, Harper isn’t quite an anomaly among the players with low BABIPs. You wouldn’t likely expect eight of the ten lowest BABIPs in the majors to have hard-hit rates above the MLB average. What gives? It’s hard to think that they all have had luck that is this bad; for one, it has been established that Chris Davis’ BABIP isn’t due to bad luck — he just can’t really hit that much any more.
Perhaps there’s something more? I am especially drawn to the comparison between Harper and Joey Gallo, as they are two elite sluggers with very similar batted ball profiles thus far this season. The only real difference between the two is their plate discipline; Harper walks more and strikes out less than Gallo, making him a much better hitter.
Harper has become one of the more shifted players in baseball, but even still, the shifts aren’t dragging Harper’s numbers down. His wOBA against the shift is .350; his wOBA when there is no shift is .358. The disparity between Harper’s shift and non-shift numbers is so small that it really isn’t affecting him overall.
For Gallo, that’s the key difference in his numbers. For Harper, it’s not.
So this brings me back to the whole bad luck argument. While it is true that Harper’s strikeout rate and whiff rate are uncharacteristically high for him, those would still be accounted for in his xBA and xwOBA metrics, which see him as a top 10 hitter in the game this season when looking at his overall profile.
It’s the batted ball numbers that are dragging Harper’s numbers down. His barrel rate is higher than ever, at 14.0 percent. His hard-hit rate, as previously mentioned, is his highest since 2015. The percentage of fastballs that he has seen has not changed dramatically, and he’s always been one of the best fastball hitters in the Majors.
Per FanGraphs, the MLB average batting average on hard/medium hit balls is .368. This season, Harper’s hitting just .330 in these scenarios. From 2015 to 2017, Harper hit .427. That’s been the difference maker.
For the Nationals, 2018 seems to be the year where all the luck seems to not be in their favor. They are playing .500 ball, but a lot of this can be attributed to injuries and underperforming players. But, at the same time, they have been dealing with two of the biggest surprises in baseball — the Phillies and Braves — both of which are in their own division.
Bryce Harper is no exception to the Nationals’ unlucky 2018, as nearly every ball that he hits has seemingly either gone for a home run or turned into an out, with almost no in-between.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.