Is it time to be worried about Bryce Harper?
Maybe you’re already there.
Maybe you’re already worried about Harper’s health. Maybe you’re already worried how he’s going to make it to the end of his 13-year contract with the Phillies. Maybe you’re already worried that he’ll never make it through a full season healthy, that he’ll always have some kind of nagging injury holding him back, and that those injuries will prevent him from being the dependable, game-changing superstar the Phillies thought they were getting three years ago.
Because it happened again. Bryce Harper had to leave the Phils’ 5-3 loss to the Dodgers on Tuesday night because he tweaked his back on a swing in the fourth inning. He tried to finish the at-bat, struck out, and was immediately removed from the game by manager Joe Girardi. It’s unclear if he’ll make it back into the lineup in time for this weekend’s rematch against Gabe Kapler and the Giants in San Francisco, and it’s unclear whether, even if he’s back, he’ll be at 100%.
Frankly, the Phillies desperately need Harper, their $330 million man, the guy they signed to be their stud, to be at 100%. He hasn’t been that over much of these past two seasons, thanks to the same nagging lower back pain that first surfaced in the second half of last year, pushed back his off-season hitting program by a month and led to him taking a more measured approach to spring training this year.
It appears as if those precautions didn’t work. The back pain flared up again in April, which caused him to miss a handful of games. He missed about two weeks in late May/early June as the after-effects of a hit-by-pitch that smacked him in the face and wrist continued to bother him. In all, Harper has played in 47 of the team’s 65 games, and in a number of those games, he has played hurt.
Folks, Harper is still just 28 years old, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s ever going to make it fully healthy through an entire season moving forward. And there are certainly many among you who wonder if the Phillies made the right decision in signing Harper over his free agency sidekick, Manny Machado. Those concerns are fair.
Since 2019, Harper has been worth 7.6 fWAR, 23rd-best in MLB. Machado has been worth 7.1, tied for 31st. Harper has an OPS of .894, 14th in MLB. Machado’s is .817, 61st-highest. Harper’s wRC+ is 133, Machado’s is 116. According to those numbers, Harper has the clear edge. But let’s look at the last two seasons.
Since last year, Machado’s 4.0 fWAR is superior to Harper’s 3.0. Harper has been the superior offensive player, with an OPS of .913 compared to Machado’s .844 and his wRC+ of 145 is much better than Manny’s 127. Machado’s value comes in his defense, where he’s outperformed Harper in all defensive metrics by a wide margin.
Given the numbers, it’s impossible to say choosing Harper over Machado has been a mistake so far. It hasn’t, based on their performances up until now. The worry is the future.
There is another decade left on Harper’s contract and the nagging injuries don’t appear to be slowing down. The back, specifically, is the big worry. A player with back pain cannot hit for power, and if Harper isn’t hitting for power, the Phils’ offense, and their $330 million investment, is sunk. One of the biggest selling points for Harper was his age, just 26 at the time of his signing. He’s still just 28 years old, a player supposedly just entering his prime.
The worry is Harper’s back is going to make him play like a 32-year-old.
Tuesday’s game against the Dodgers was a killer not just in the standings, but in the trainer’s room, too. Jean Segura, their best and most consistent hitter all season, strained a groin trying to beat out a double play ball in the top of the 9th inning. After the game, Girardi indicated Segura, with his 1.5 fWAR, .332/.379/.467 slash line and All-Star credentials, might not be back right away, a crippling loss for a lineup that just started to get all its pieces back together.
Momentum is only as good as the next day’s pitcher, or so the saying goes. It’s also only as good as the healthy people you can put in your lineup. No one can help getting hurt, but regardless of “fault,” it’s unfortunate and worrisome that Harper’s back problem simply won’t stop taking him out of the lineup.