260/.372/.510, 682 PA, 35 HR, 114 RBI, 26.1 K%, 14.5 BB%, 4.6 fWAR
When Bryce Harper ended his long winter of free agency by signing a record contract with the Phillies, fan reaction was ecstasy, with an undercurrent of doubt. Harper’s talent wasn’t in question, but analysts had understandable concerns about his consistency, his durability, his defense, and even his personality. It was easy to imagine how he’d meet high expectations; it was maybe even easier to come up with ways he might fall far short of them.
As it happened, the Harper of Year One turned out to be almost shockingly low-maintenance—a set-it-and-forget-it superstar. He played 157 games, second most in his career. His defense was good enough that he was a Gold Glove finalist, as he tied a career high with 13 outfield assists. In terms of consistency, it’s easy to remember that he started the season strong, dipped later in the spring, then caught fire over the last two months. What might surprise you was that his worst month OPS-wise was a still fine .811 in May. Finally, Harper was by all accounts a solid teammate and good citizen: so far at least, the love affair with Philadelphia remains mutual.
“All I want to do is give my heart and soul to this city,” Harper told The Athletic during an interview in mid-September. “They hold you accountable, and I think that’s the best part. That’s something some guys don’t like and some guys don’t like playing in Philly because of that reason, but for me, I absolutely love it. They let you know when you’re doing badly and I like that. It holds me accountable and to a higher standard. I want to work hard for them and deserve that.”
Maybe best of all, Harper authored some of the most memorable moments of the season. He was absolutely the guy you wanted up in the biggest spots of the game, and the numbers bear it out: in high leverage situations, Harper batted .307/.370/.667 with 10 homers in 127 plate appearances.
If you’re looking for something to worry about with Harper, it’s that he struggled against velocity. His numbers against power pitchers were an ugly .156/.298/.358, intensifying a career-long trend. Anecdotally, this problem seemed at its worst in early summer, as Harper’s OPS dipped down toward .800, and eased as he started hitting everybody in August and September. But given the trend of harder throwers across the game, and a contract with 12 more seasons to run, and actuarial tables, it’s not hard to imagine how this could become an issue in a few years’ time.
Well, there’s a lot of it: 12 more seasons, with a no-trade clause. The likely bet with Harper’s contract was always that the first half to two-thirds would be all-star caliber, hopefully with a few years of MVP consideration, overlapping with some memorable October runs. Swap Harper’s August with his May and he probably would have made the Midsummer Classic; either way, this first season met at least the low end of that standard, and if he has seven or eight more of these in him, that would do just fine.
The idea of getting a superstar like Harper was never for that player to carry the full load. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of 2019 was that the homegrown core to which Harper and fellow import JT Realmuto were to serve as finishing additions proved itself unready to compete. But there was nothing in either player’s performance last season to make you doubt that if and when everything else is in place, they will deliver.