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Bryce Harper is making his case for NL MVP

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With the season turning the final corner, the MVP talk is growing louder. Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper has put himself firmly in the mix.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper has drawn intense scrutiny from Philly fans ever since his arrival in 2019 by way of a 13-year, $330 million contract signed in free agency. With that much money allocated to one player, fans have a right to question the player’s production.

Yet, no matter how well Harper performs, he can’t seem to get out from under the intense gaze of the fans who believe he isn’t living up to his contract (spoiler alert: he has and then some). Not even taking this season into account, which we will soon based on the headline alone, Harper has been fantastic for the Phillies.

In 2019, his first full season with Philadelphia, Harper slashed .260/.372/.510, an improvement from 2018 and his final season with the Washington Nationals. 2020 was even better as he slashed .268/.420/.542 in the shortened season. Harper has played to his contract and is earning every penny.

Yet, 2021 is a different story. Unlike the last two seasons, the Phillies are squarely in the hunt for a postseason berth as they round the final turn of the season and their eyes are on the division. Philadelphia has clawed their way back to and over .500, which is the 34th time that has happened this season through 109 games.

Multiple players have helped spur on the chase down the stretch, but two could be considered MVP’s, the first is Harper and the second is Zack Wheeler. If you look at just WAR, Wheeler leads not just the Phillies, but the entire NL, and is second in the MLB with 5.6. Pretty incredible stuff. And due to Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom missing extended periods of time, multiple times this season, Wheeler should be at the forefront of the NL Cy Young conversation.

But, the MVP conversation? A pitcher has won both the Cy Young and MVP awards just 11 times in MLB history. And while Wheeler is in the midst of a career year, it won’t garner him many MVP votes. A Cy Young. . . perhaps.

Harper on the other hand, just might be doing enough to garner votes as he is currently in the middle of one of the better season’s of his career. Of course his 2015 season in which he won the NL MVP could be considered otherworldly, and his 2017 season was also incredibly impressive. But, that is the thing about a player of Harper’s caliber, one of his better seasons, not even his best, could very well lead to an MVP award.

This season, Harper is slashing .305/.415/.568 with a wRC+ of 158 and a WAR of 3.6. That already puts Harper in some rare air, but as our own Leo Morgenstern pointed out, only one player in the National League has a .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage, and .500 slugging percentage (or better) and that man is named Bryce Harper.

Many people will turn towards Harper’s lack of RBIs as a case against him, he only has 44 of them through August 6. For many readers, those lack of RBIs tells them that Harper just isn’t living up to his contract and being productive when player’s are on base. But that’s just it, Harper has only experienced runners in scoring position in just 19.2% of his at bats. With RISP, Harper is slashing .322/.453/.441 with 22 RBIs, over half of his RBI total. In other words, when he has the opportunity, he is taking advantage of the runners on base and more importantly, in scoring position.

However, players just aren’t getting on base ahead of Harper, hence his 17 solo homeruns. Only two players in the NL have as many or more solo shots than Harper, which were the MVP front runners coming into the season in Fernando Tatis Jr., and Ronald Acuna Jr., both of which routinely hit leadoff.

If the argument is that Wheeler, the pitcher with the highest WAR in the NL, won’t win the MVP award, then that means no other pitcher in the NL will. That leaves us with just position players to account for. The position players ahead of Harper with a higher WAR than him are Tatis Jr., Acuna Jr., Trea Turner, Max Muncy, Bryan Reynolds, and Chris Taylor. The first two, the odds on MVP favorites ahead of the season, are injured. Acuna’s injury is of the season-ending variety with a torn ACL. Three of the other players are Los Angeles Dodgers players, and then Reynolds is on one of the worst teams in baseball.

Most voters like to see the MVP come from a team in contention, which means that Reynolds, no matter how great he has been, likely won’t win the award. That leaves the three Dodgers players and Tatis.

Tatis is always at risk for injury with his shoulder that is constantly barking and has seen him put on the injured list twice this season. What effect this latest injury to his shoulder will have on his playing time is yet to be determined, but it only bolster’s Harper’s chances.

The three Dodgers players represent an interesting argument. Turner is missing time right now due to testing positive for COVID-19 and he just got traded. It is hard to make an argument for MVP when you switch teams more than halfway through the season.

Taylor is a utility player who is having an incredible season, but he doesn’t represent the best player at any one position on the team which could work against him. That leaves just Max Muncy as the real competitor for Harper.

Muncy is over the 4.0 WAR hump now with 4.1 and his slash line of .272/.407/.545 is equally as impressive. He also meets the criteria of being on a contending team and doing so for an entire season. Additionally, the infielder has 387 plate appearances to Harper’s 371, which can be attributed to Harper’s missed time with back ailments earlier in the season.

Yet, there is the argument of the “intangibles” that so many like to talk about and in reality a lot of the MVP voters take into account. Harper is the heart and soul of this Phillies team, he has the biggest and most influential voice in the locker room. Where Harper has gone in terms of production, so too has this team. Can the same be said for Muncy?

While Andrew McCutchen (now on the IL), Jean Segura, and Rhys Hoskins have all had their share of helping carry this team, it is Harper who has consistently been in the middle urging his club on while providing timely hitting, defense, and leadership. Those are the intangibles voters will be citing when they cast their vote.

If Harper continues on his current tear and the Phillies make it to the playoffs by way of winning the NL East, then it could come down to a two-man race between him and Muncy (if Tatis misses significant time or the rest of the season).

Yet, Harper only continues to make his case with each day that passes. In the first game of arguably the biggest series of the season so far, Harper launched a 442-foot mammoth shot to dead away center. That homerun proved to be the lift the Phillies needed to notch not just the win against the New York Mets, but also to take the NL East divisional lead. It’s the timely hitting in the biggest situations that set MVPs apart from the rest.

For Harper, his eyes are on the next at-bat, the next game, the next series, not the MVP award. And perhaps that is exactly why he will be hoisting the award come the end of the season.