It’s been said many, many times: Bryce Harper is a once in a generation player. The implication being that he is such a great baseball player that equals of his talent are rarely seen, let alone available for your team to acquire with merely money. And so it follows that a team should spend whatever he wants to acquire him. Four hundred million for 10 years? DO IT. Apparently there is no such limit that constitutes an “overpay” when it comes to Bryce Harper.
But is that accurate?
It’s been said/we’ve heard/been told/written by the media that, yes, Bryce Harper is a sure fire future Hall of Famer, a baseball phenomenon, the ONE. But by which metric can we quantify how great he’s been?
WAR is the stat most often used to gauge a players value to his team. It’s not a great stat, but it’s the one that people use most often when arguing a case of how great/how poor a player has been. WAR, after all, encompasses offense, defense, position, base running, production, etc. into one simple number. It’s so well liked that it’s often the single biggest consideration when it comes to MVP voting and indeed, more often than not, the position player in each league with the most WAR accumulated in any given year is that league’s MVP.
But let’s NOT use WAR in this case because… well, because it’s too easy.
So perhaps there’s some other metric that makes Harper worth $400M over the next 10 years. Despite the fact that a similar player in the form of Manny Machado just set the market by signing a significantly lower ten-year, $300M agreement with the San Diego Padres, somehow there are people who can still justify paying Harper a whopping 33.3% more than what Machado is getting. They believe this also despite the fact that another similar player is set to hit free agency next year (Nolan Arenado) and then another the following year (Mike Trout, perhaps the real generational player).
Paying significantly more for something similar to what just sold for a lot less is not very smart business. And still paying that much more when the market is supposed to have additional similar inventory in the near future is just plain stupid. You generally don’t see rich and successful people do this because that’s how they became rich and successful. No, this is what people who win the lottery do and they’re typically on a collision course back to poverty.
Maybe home runs is the metric that makes Harper a generational talent worth almost half a billion dollars? Prolific power could certainly earn a player “generational” status, no?
Unfortunately Harper isn’t exceptionally amazing at nailing the long ball. His 184 HR’s place him 19th since he entered the league in 2012 – unless Jay Bruce, who has two more dingers than Harper is also generational? Recent Phillie acquisition Andrew McCutchen has 172 in that time span and he played most of last season in one of the least hitter friendly parks in baseball.
Batting average? Nope. His .279 career average is the same as…Odubel Herrera (and new Phillie J.T. Realmuto)!
Slugging? That’s a negative. Again, Harper checks in at 19th with his .512 slugging percentage.
On Base Percentage? Well, we’re getting closer but his .388, while ridiculously good, doesn’t qualify as generational as it’s 6th on the list.
Maybe it’s pure contact skills, right? Maybe his ability to not strike out and to consistently put the ball in play makes him among the all-time greats? But alas, while he’s nowhere near terrible, he is equally nowhere near great. His 21.7% K rate is equivalent to non-generational players like Starling Marte and Marcell Ozuna.
Walks! That’s it, right? Gotta be. YES, Harper is an elite walker! He walks at 14.8% of the time, almost as much as Jose Bautista… wait… what? Oh, no. While he does walk a lot it doesn’t appear to be at a generational level. Joey Votto he ain’t.
It’s a shame he doesn’t have elite speed though, because if he did, he could perhaps walk to first and steal second to put himself in scoring position. But, as it turns out, not so much. He has 75 stolen bases since the start of his career in 2012 and known speedster and old timer Brandon Phillips has 70 in the same span.
Perhaps it’s that he’s doing all these things at such a young age? None of these stats come anywhere close to supporting the claim that Harper is a generational talent but he is doing it in his early to mid twenties.
That would be all well and good but as mentioned Manny Machado did all this and more and apparently no team saw fit to go over $300M for him, making the case that going to $400M for Harper would be a really tough pill to swallow.
One could make the case that Harper is at the start of what will be a monstrous next 10 years, but that’s projection. You can read articles from 2011/2012 that made the same assertions for the current time period and as shown, that didn’t pan out.
When you look at some of the other early-twenties phenoms, you see a much different story than that of Harper’s. Even in $300M Machado’s case, while similar, he’s managed to put up over five more wins (equivalent to a full very good seasons’ more WAR) than Harper in the same exact time period.
Alex Rodriguez was also a phenom and from his age 18-25 seasons he put up 241 home runs compared to Harper’s 184, carried a .311 batting average compared to Harper’s .278 and slugged significantly higher at .571. He was not as prolific a walker as Harper, but he still managed to have an OPS 49 points higher. He also put up 46.4 bWAR which indicates he was markedly more valuable than Harper’s 27.4. He did play a different position, but in playing that position he added value to his game and that’s worth something.
Then there’s Ken Griffey Jr. who made his MLB debut at age 19 just like Harper. Through his age 25 season he hit only five more home runs than Harper but he, like A-Rod, achieved a much higher batting average at .302 and a higher slugging percentage at .536. But also like A-Rod, he walked a bit less and still had a higher OPS than Harper, albeit only by 15 points. And yet again, he put up more WAR at 40.3. Griffey, like Harper, played in the outfield.
In fact, Harper is one of 26 players since 1990 that have put up at least 25 WAR through their first 7 seasons up until age 26. Were they all generational players? Would you hand any one of them a $400M/10 year contract? Before answering you should know that you’d be handing out that contract to Nomar Garciaparra, Scott Rolen, Eric Chavez, GRADY SIZEMORE, David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, and Jayson Heyward. How would you feel if you absolutely shattered the record for biggest contract to one of those guys? Not too smart, huh?
Bryce Harper ranks 20thon that list for batting average (bottom third), 14thfor slugging percentage, 3rdfor most strike outs, 14thfor ground into double plays, and 17thin WAR.
And if you look at some of the names on that list, Sizemore, Tulo, Wright for example, there’s no telling what the future holds and allocating as much as 20% of the current luxury tax threshold on one player really isn’t that good of an idea on what seems to be a huge risk.
Sure Harper could be right behind Mike Schmidt as the next best position player in the history of the Phillies but he’s nowhere near that as it stands. And Michael Jack had the benefit of being able to - year in and year out- play a Gold Glove caliber defense and that’s worth something
There are some who say that the money doesn’t mean anything – that bringing in a player like Harper will more than cover itself in ticket sales, merchandise, and other ancillary revenue streams. But what if he continues his course of not reaching perceived potential? No one’s buying Grady Sizemore jerseys the last six years and you’d be hard pressed to find an Eric Chavez jersey in anyone’s collection – not even Eric Chavez’s. And if Harper hits .249 and strike’s out 169 times like he did last year while making $40M people are going to be buying those jerseys just to burn in effigy.
Maybe if they sold some Bryce Harper branded lighter fluid too? At $1M per can they could close the deficit of a “bust-case” Harper in no time.