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2021 player preview: Bryce Harper

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Can the Phillies’ right fielder reach his MVP-caliber ceiling?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Tampa Bay Rays
Bryce Harper has been good...but can he be great?
Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

In his first two seasons with the Phillies, Bryce Harper has been a very good player, and yet many people think he’s been a slight disappointment. I suppose that when a former MVP goes through a well-publicized free agency campaign and signs a massive 13-year contract, people are going to expect big things from him. He was called overrated while still on the Nationals, so it’s only natural that those calls increased after he got paid.

If fans expected Mike Trout-like numbers every year, they were always going to be disappointed. Aside from one season, Harper has never really been at Trout’s level (it should be noted that Trout is probably one of the 20 best players in baseball history), and it wasn’t realistic to expect him to be. But that doesn’t mean he’s not an excellent player in his own right.

His 2020 numbers were strong. He had the fifth best on-base percentage in baseball and hit 13 home runs in the shortened season. And this happened in a season where he was dealing with a back injury.

Barring injury, its almost guaranteed that Harper will have another very good season in 2021. But its worth wondering if he’s capable of even more, and raising his game back to an elite MVP-winning level.

What could go right in 2021

We’ve seen Harper’s ceiling (9.7 WAR), and at age 28, he should be in the prime of his career. If everything goes right, he’s capable of hitting 40 home runs with an OPS above 1.100.

Perhaps those are unrealistic expectations, but remember that he was off to a hot start in 2020 before a back injury slowed him down. Many people suspect that in a normal year, he would have taken time off to rest the injury, but in the COVID-shortened season, he didn’t have that luxury.

He seemed to get better at managing the injury during the stretch run as he had two multi-home run games in September.

In order to avoid the injury problems from last season, he’s proactively altered his throwing motion to put less stress on his body. Perhaps this will allow him to stay healthier throughout the entire season.

Harper was also a bit unlucky in 2020. His walk rate increased, while his strikeout rate decreased, but his BABIP was only .279. If he can continue to keep his strikeouts down, while getting a little more luck on balls in play, his numbers could certainly improve.

What could go wrong in 2021

Harper has gone into significant slumps in each of his first two seasons with the Phillies. In 2019, it was attributed to joining the team late in camp and needing some time to get acclimated. In 2020, it was attributed to the back injury.

While he has a very high floor as a player - his OPS hasn’t been below .880 in five years - I worry that there may always be something preventing Harper from reaching his full ceiling in Philadelphia.

I’ve also focused mainly on Harper’s offense. Defensively, Harper has been inconsistent throughout his career. He’s got a cannon of an arm, and even with the altered throwing motion, that shouldn’t change. However, he’s never seemed as natural in the outfield as a player with his athletic talents should. After improving in 2019, he was once again rated as below average in right field for 2020. Perhaps that was due to the back, but it’s also possible he’s just not a great defensive player.

What to expect

There’s no reason Harper shouldn’t have a monster season in 2021. He’s in the prime of his career, he’s reportedly healthy, and has looked good at the plate thus far in Spring Training. I expect 30+ home runs, and OPS over 1.000, a return to the All-Star Game, and a significant quieting of the “overrated” talk.