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2019 Phillies preview: A deep dive on Bryce Harper

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We go a layer deep to get you what you need to know about the impact of Philly’s newest star

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies-Bryce Harper Press Conference Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The day finally arrived, and with it, all the seismic punch we thought it might carry. Bryce Harper, prodigious talent and forever the Phillies’ nemesis in the NL East, changed his stripes and agreed to a sport-rocking 13-year, $330 million deal Thursday. We’ll feel the effects of this day for a long, long time, and I’m not just talking about that “13,” either.

Harper is a baseball prodigy, bred to play this sport (and play it well) basically from the day he was born. He hit homers out of Tropicana Field with an aluminum bat at age 16. He got a $10 million bonus, plus a guaranteed MLB deal, before playing a single professional game. He hit his first Major League home run at 19, years younger than some other current Phillies were when they were just drafted.

Harper brings with him an immense of amount of talent, charisma, and attention, and has already made it clear that his intent is to make Philadelphia an attractive place to play for more stars to follow. He’s the biggest addition, tangibly and intangibly, to this team in some time.

We’ve had a chance to see Harper as much as 15-20 times each year for a while now, and we’re all at least vaguely familiar with this baseball monolith, even if our watching schedules haven’t always aligned with games against the Nationals. What I’ve tried to do here is go a layer or two deeper than his season stats, to try and present an idea of Harper’s strengths, weaknesses, and what impact he stands to make on this lineup and this city.

There is, as you might have expected, a whole lot to like.

The Bat

One of the greatest things about adding a player of Harper’s caliber is that his expected floor is so incredibly high. At his worst, Harper hit .273/.344/.423 as a 21-year-old. In the four years since, he’s hit .283/.410/.543. Even at his worst — a .767 OPS — he’s better than a lot of what the Phillies have featured in the outfield over the past few seasons. Exactly zero qualified Phillies OFers had an OPS that high in either 2014 or ‘15, and only Odubel Herrera (‘16 and ‘17) and Rhys Hoskins (last year) have done it in the past three years.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, to learn that Harper’s average season over the past four (that .953 OPS above) has only been accomplished by two Phils in the last 41 years: Bobby Abreu (three times) and Greg Luzinski (once).

What sticks out as worrisome — and that’s a relative term here — is how Harper’s season totals have swung and varied from year to year. You’ve probably come across a few folks who are unimpressed at the thought of paying out a huge deal to a guy who “only hit .249” in 2018, or whose defensive metrics have sunk his overall WAR totals in a couple recent seasons.

More on the second half of that in a bit. But to answer questions about whether his overall numbers are truly that unimpressive, here’s one high-level look:

That’s simplistic and arbitrary, so to level the playing field (and, really even go so far as to handicap my own argument), here are Harper’s totals and ranks among all hitters in the three seasons after his humongous 2015 MVP run:

  • AVG: .267 (t-141st)
  • OBP: .391 (t-10th)
  • SLG: .505 (t-36th)
  • HR: 87 (t-15th)

Rate stats are among those with a minimum of 300 PA in the last three seasons.

He is also, in that time:

  • One of just three Major Leaguers to walk 300-plus times while striking out fewer than 400 times. The other two are Joey Votto and Mike Trout.
  • One of eight hitters to have 85-plus homers and 35-plus stolen bases (Trout, Betts, Lindor, Goldschmidt, Dozier, Blackmon, Story).

He hasn’t been Trout, but then that’s not exactly the fairest measuring stick to use here. Mike Trout has ruined contemporary comparisons for outfielders across the game. You sort of have to treat him like you would Aroldis Chapman’s name on a list of the fastest pitches ever thrown.

Still, you might balk at the rank of 141st for any statistic, and if you’re the kind of fan that values a high batting average more than today’s typical front office, chances are you’re not thrilled at the moment.

And that’s alright! We all have our player-type preferences. But there’s reason to believe the .249 of 2018 and the .243 of 2016 are the exceptions to the Harper rule, not the expectation moving forward.

Can you tell which of these two batted ball/plate discipline profiles was the one Harper had during his MVP year in 2015 and which was not?

Which is Which?

Season LD% FB% GB% BB% K% Whiff% HardHit%
Season LD% FB% GB% BB% K% Whiff% HardHit%
A 22.2 39.3 38.5 19.0 20.0 10.8 40.9
B 22.2 38.0 39.8 18.7 24.3 12.9 42.3
FanGraphs

Pretty close, right? Now, consider that one of those seasons featured a BABIP of .369 (appropriate for that HardHit%, honestly) and the other was just .289, and the disparity starts looking more like a product of misfortune than malady: In the last nine seasons, Harper’s year was one of only 10 with a HardHit% above 42 and a BABIP under .290. It doesn’t explain everything, but it gets most of the way there.

As far as approach goes, he does have his weak points. Last year, Harper was most vulnerable up-and-away, and too far down-and-in.

BrooksBaseball

A big part of this is thanks to Harper’s...let’s call it “calculated aggression.” Here’s a guy who’s certainly not afraid to draw a walk — 100-plus in three of his seven seasons, including a league-leading 130 in 2018 — but is far more likely to swing at hittable pitches (in any count) than, say, Carlos Santana.

It’s also offset by the knowledge that, when he does make contact in those zones, he does so pretty authoritatively.

BaseballSavant

Harper’s version of this “calculated aggression” has resulted in an interesting combination: He has averaged seeing more than four pitches per plate appearance each of the last four years, but has still swung at (or around) a league average amount of pitches. That’s a good mix. Of the 24 hitters who saw 4.19 pitches per PA last year, no one came close to Harper’s rate of 79.2 percent of strikes swung at (per B-Ref). In the inverse, among those who swung at 79 percent or more of the total strikes they saw (26 players in all), only Joey Gallo averaged more than 4 pitches per PA. Harper has the eye to lay off pitches that aren’t hittable or are low-quality strikes, while still being ready to swing at any juicy pitch that comes his way. In a sense, he’s the perfect marriage of the uber-patient, latter-day ideal and the “I’m paid to hit, not take” throwback type. Everybody wins.

That is a majestic walloping of a baseball.

As for his new home stadium, it’s worth noting that, for all his success at Citizens Bank Park over the years, the pitchers Harper’s hit homers off of in the park are...well, I felt like I had to put their names into a word cloud to make it seem more interesting.

So there’s that.

But it’s clear — bad recent Phillies pitchers aside — Harper hits the ball hard. And that’s a great way to have more hits get through the infield, split the gap quicker, or leave the yard altogether. By Statcast’s measurements, Harper ranked 11th in the league last year in xwOBA, and his average exit velo of 90.6 MPH placed him 42nd, and he’s consistently above league average in line drive and barrel percentage. He squares ‘em up.

What he’ll need to combat, as most hitters with certain tendencies do these days, is an increase in shifting. Harper posted a .350 wOBA when shifted last season; still good, but not as good as the .404 he had when not shifted. He’s consistently hit about 25 percent of his batted balls the opposite way over the last four seasons, but his ground ball BABIP has fluctuated wildly without necessarily tracking with the uptick in shifts from last year.

The key, as always, is to hit more line drives and dingers.

The Glove

Fielding metrics are tough to explain. Their pursuit is noble, but at the end of the day, it’s fair to wonder exactly what is being measured by some of these numbers, and to consider the methodologies involved in their compilation.

A big reason why I avoided using the defensive component of WAR last year was that it seemed unusually volatile (Manny Machado as the worst defensive shortstop of all-time was not something that aligned well with the eye test, for one example). Does it not seem at least a little odd that a player who had been no worse than a -3 in DRS in right field in his career (and had even graded out positively in center field as recently as 2015) was all of a sudden a -16 in that same spot? This is an athletic 26-year-old we’re talking about here, not a declining, late-30s hangaround.

Harper had no assists as a right fielder last year, but kept runners from taking an extra base in 44.8 percent of the chances they had. Despite that being a career-worst for him, it’s only 1.9 percent lower than the league average hold rate in the time Harper’s been in the Majors. He’s been above average every other year. It’s one measure, but does that scream “defensive liability?” Maybe he’s not prime Jason Heyward out there, but he seems a fair bit better than “total nightmare,” too. I’m not concerned about his chances of sticking in right field for a while yet.

The Scrutiny

Arm yourselves. Every single thing Bryce Harper does draws attention, good and bad alike. He’s already received an incredible amount of derision just for Freudian Slipping in a “bring a title back to D.C.” during his otherwise otherworldly introductory press conference. A lot of that is probably borne of jealousy, but I digress.

Harper is the easiest target imaginable for opposing fans. We were on that side of the fence before; opposing fans are going to revel in every misstep, every error, every strikeout. Harper won’t be perfect, and his imperfections attract plenty of attention on their own.

Don’t get caught up in every little talking point, or you’ll go crazy. This season is shaping up to be a thrilling one, with a really good team that’s poised to contend for a playoff spot immediately. Folks delighting in Harper’s slumps will test you, but you’ll be ready for them.

The Magnetism

The Phillies are selling out of jerseys as fast as they can stock them. Tickets are flying out of the box office. Prices for flights to Clearwater in anticipation of Harper’s spring debut this Saturday have skyrocketed. The lowest available price for tickets to the Phillies’ home opener on March 28 as of this writing are $115...for the 15th row of the top bowl in section 429.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger draw in Philadelphia right now, and that’s even considering how well the Sixers are playing, how good a run the Flyers have been on, and how the city’s darlings won a Super Bowl only a little more than a year ago. It takes some doing to make the baseball team the biggest story in Philadelphia, but Bryce Harper has singlehandedly accomplished that very thing. And while that might sound a bit unfair to the host of other moves the team had made

The Phillies have landed a special player, one who caps off an already-good offseason in the strongest way possible. This is a new era, a new regime, and Harper is its sigil.