The hot free agency discussion this off season has been all about Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and the value of their impending astronomical contracts. Machado, as we know, landed in San Diego for ten years, $300 million, and a $30 million average annual value. All eyes are now on Harper.
While most want to simply compare Harper and Machado, I have been looking at Harper versus other right fielders. Since bursting onto the MLB scene in 2012, Harper has been one of the best right fielders in the game. Since his rookie season, he’s been the second best right fielder in the game, behind Giancarlo Stanton when ranking by fWAR. Over that span of seven seasons, Stanton has a 32.0 fWAR, while Harper trails, just barely, with a 30.7 fWAR.
Stanton, in my opinion, is the best comparison for Harper this off season, and the player teams should point to when coming up with a value for Harper. Stanton’s massive $325 million contract went into effect in 2015, which was his age-25 season. Harper is heading into his age-26 year—placing age, position and productivity comparisons all on equal ground. Stanton’s contract spans 13 seasons, for an AAV of $25 million—so what does that mean for Harper?
Comparing the players a little further, Stanton has nine seasons under his belt for a 4.33 average fWAR per season. Harper has played seven years for a 4.38 average, giving him a slight edge (though in two fewer seasons). Harper has posted the single best season between the two players, coming in 2015 when he had an fWAR of 9.3 and won the NL MVP. Stanton’s single season high came in 2017, when he posted a 7.3 fWAR.
What if we throw those years out, and re-average their career fWAR? Stanton would sit at 3.96, while Harper would have a 3.01 fWAR. Harper, though, also had the worst season of the two players, when he posted a 1.6 fWAR in 2014. Stanton’s worst fWAR of 2.2 came in 2016. What if we also throw out the low numbers? This would see Harper bounce back up to a 3.96, while Stanton would come back up to a 4.21 fWAR, remaining ahead of Harper.
What does this tell us, really? The two players have been very similar overall, with Stanton the steadier player. Harper has shown the higher ceiling, no doubt, but while his peaks are very high, his lows can be very low.
All that said, how does Stanton’s $25 million AAV look for Bryce Harper in 2019? Using an inflation calculator, it appears inflation since 2015, when Stanton signed his deal, it has been 6.2 percent on the dollar. If we value Harper and Stanton so similarly, and they are signing their deals at roughly the same age, what if we apply that inflation rate to Stanton’s deal? We’d get an inflation rate equaling $1,550,000 per year, putting Harper at an AAV of $26,550,000.
Now, since everyone wants to compare Harper and Machado, let’s also do that. Is the above AAV fair for Harper, considering what Machado was just paid?
Machado debuted the same year as Harper and has a 30.2 fWAR in seven seasons, though he was called up later in 2012 and only played 51 games that year. Since 2012, Harper has 3,957 plate appearances, giving him a 4.65 fWAR/600. Machado has 4,074 plate appearances and a 4.44 fWAR/600. The edge here goes to Harper.
How much do these guys actually play, on average, though? Machado averages 582 plate appearances per year, while Harper is at 565. Based on those averages, Machado should be worth 4.31 fWAR most years, while Harper should post a 4.38 in an average year. Again, the edge goes—more slightly this time—to Harper.
However, Machado, like Stanton, has been more consistent than Harper. He’s been especially great the last four years, with an average 5.42 fWAR—with an fWAR of 6-plus in three of those seasons. Harper, in the last four years, has an average 5.15 fWAR, aided greatly by that monster 2015 season. Based solely on the average fWAR for these four seasons, the Padres are paying Machado $5,535,055 per fWAR. If Harper was to get the same value per fWAR, he’d be paid $28,505,535 per year.
All that said, what should Harper be paid?
While he’s posted the single best year of the players mentioned here, he’s also been the most wildly inconsistent. I think he’s worth at least what Stanton was paid (in 2019 dollars versus 2015) but not quite what Machado received. That $28.5 million AAV would be a fair starting point for negotiations.
I’m not in favor of any player being underpaid, but if Machado was happy with a deal valuing him at $30 million per year, Harper should understand—going by the numbers—he’s, at best, worth an equal amount.
Of course, if he doesn’t like the sound of any of this, he could always take a one-year deal and try again next year.
Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC