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Bryce Harper is underrated, not overrated

Toronto Blue Jays v Philadelphia Phillies

CLEARWATER, FLORIDA - MARCH 09: Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies hits in the third inning during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 09, 2019 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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Earlier, Craig highlighted The Athletic’s annual player poll. New Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper, fresh off of a 13-year, $330 million contract signing, was voted by players as the most overrated player in the game. Quite a few baseball fans and talking heads are in agreement. An anonymous NL executive called Harper “overrated” last year as well.

This doesn’t come as any surprise, as Harper -- a six-time All-Star -- has gotten the “overrated” treatment his entire career. Harper was a hotshot high school talent, making the cover of Sports Illustrated in May 2009 with the headline, “Chosen One.” The embedded feature, written by Tom Verducci, called him “Baseball’s LeBron.” Harper was later selected first overall by the Nationals in the 2010 draft. He would have to become one of the greatest players of all time to live up to that billing, especially at such a young age. Harper has been playing catch-up with other people’s outrageous expectations ever since. Now that he has signed baseball’s largest contract at 13 years and $330 million, those expectations are only greater.

Harper won the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012 at the age of 19, posting an .817 OPS with 22 home runs, 59 RBI, 98 runs scored, and 18 stolen bases in 597 plate appearances. He was the second-youngest player to win NL ROY. (The youngest is Dwight Gooden in 1984.)

In 2015, Harper on the NL Most Valuable Player Award, leading all of baseball in on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649), OPS (1.109), and adjusted OPS (198) while leading the NL in runs (118) and home runs (42). Since 1969, there have been only 19 times a player qualified for the batting title and put up an adjusted OPS of 195 or better. Barry Bonds did it six times, followed by Mark McGwire (twice), and once each from Willie McCovey, Dick Allen, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Jason Giambi, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Harper, and Mike Trout. Pretty good company. Harper accrued 10.0 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. It’s one of only ten 10-WAR seasons this millennium. The others: Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds (three times), Mike Trout (three times), and Mookie Betts. Harper has likely and unfairly been held up to his 2015 standard ever since.

For his career to date, Harper -- who was still 25 years old when the regular season ended last year -- has accrued a .900 OPS (139 adjusted OPS) with a .279/.388/.512 line, 184 home runs, 521 RBI, 610 runs scored, and 75 stolen bases. Harper is one of only 17 players to rack up at least 175 home runs by the end of his age-25 season. The other 16: Manny Machado, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Andruw Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Johnny Bench, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, and Jimmie Foxx. Pretty good company. The list shrinks to seven if we include stealing at least 75 bases through one’s age-25 season. That list includes only Harper, Trout, Jones, Rodriguez, Griffey, Cepeda, and Robinson.

Harper’s detractors point out that he has only played in 140-plus games in three out of seven seasons, which is indeed true. His injury history:

  • 2012: Made his MLB debut on April 28, the Nationals’ 21st game of the season (prospects often don’t open the season on their teams’ 25-man rosters)
  • 2013: Dealt with left knee bursitis throughout the season, underwent offseason surgery to remove a bursa sac
  • 2014: Harper tore the UCL in his left thumb sliding into third base, on DL from April 26 through June 29
  • 2017: Harper hyperextended his left knee slipping on a wet first base bag, missing time between August 13 and September 25

As you can see, Harper doesn’t really have an injury problem. The two major injuries he suffered were freak injuries that occasionally happen from playing baseball. (That 2017 injury should’ve never happened but the umpires insisted on having the players do battle in poor, wet conditions.) Holding that against him isn’t exactly fair. While the time missed due to various injuries has caused Harper not to rack up as many counting stats as he otherwise could have -- which would have put him in even more rarefied air -- he is still an absolute stud in the rate stats.

Harper’s detractors point out that, aside from 2015, Harper hasn’t led the league in anything important. He paced baseball with 130 walks last season and drew a league-high 20 intentional walks in 2016, but that’s it as far as topping the leaderboards. Harper has also never had another top-10 finish in NL MVP Award balloting. Those, however, are functions of his having missed time due to injuries which, as we’ve established, isn’t something that should be held against him. Harper’s 130 walks, by the way, marked one of only five seasons since Barry Bonds retired in which a player drew 130+ walks. Joey Votto did it three times and Jose Bautista once. Harper’s walks total was a function of an acute batting eye as well as myriad pitchers deciding they would rather risk putting him on first base for free than giving him something good to hit.

Harper’s detractors often point to his defense, particularly last year. Baseball Reference had him at 26 runs saved below average last year with the Nationals. It’s in the top-20 worst defensive seasons of all time by an outfielder, according to the metric. FanGraphs’ UZR wasn’t much kinder, putting him at 18.1 runs below average. Harper is not quite as athletic as he was when he was 19 years old, but he wasn’t over the hill by any means at the age of 25 last year. His 2018 defensive numbers are a tremendous outlier. His other marks, per Baseball Reference: +14 in 2009, +4 in 2013, break-even in 2014, +9 in 2015, -3 in 2016, and +4 in 2017. UZR had him at +6.7 in 2012, -1.3 in 2013, -3.5 in 2014, -10.2 in 2015, -1.7 in 2016, and -2.0 in 2017. It’s not quite clear what the issue is. The data could be wonky. Maybe the Nationals were doing something funky with their defensive alignments at times that threw off Harper’s numbers, or was just plain bad (as was the Phillies’ case).

Harper’s detractors always point out that Harper’s Nationals never advanced past the NLDS. They reached the postseason four times: in 2012, ’14, ’16, and ’17. Three of those four series went to a decisive fifth game while the 2014 series went four games. Stars are unfairly held accountable for their teams’ postseason successes and failures even though one player rarely makes enough of an impact to carry a team by himself the way a star can in other sports, particularly basketball. LeBron James brought his team to the finals in eight consecutive seasons, for example. Harper has even performed well in the playoffs overall, owning an .801 OPS with five homers in 89 plate appearances. It isn’t Harper’s fault Drew Storen imploded in the ninth inning of NLDS Game 5 in 2012 against the Cardinals. It isn’t Harper’s fault Aaron Barrett uncorked a wild pitch, allowing the eventual winning run to score in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the 2014 NLDS against the Giants. It isn’t Harper’s fault Sammy Solis let the Dodgers put up a four-spot in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS. Nor is it Harper’s fault that Gio González and Max Scherzer combined to allow seven runs in four innings of work against the Cubs in Game 5 of the 2017 NLDS.

Harper likely also suffers from playing in the shadow of Mike Trout, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2012 opposite Harper in the NL. Harper is good, but Trout is on another level. Trout has three 10-WAR seasons under his belt and two more 9-WAR seasons to boot. Trout has managed to stay more consistently healthy while putting up video game numbers. When he retires, Trout will probably go down as one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

It is worth mentioning that “overrated” may be used by some to mean “I don’t like this guy” as opposed to actual commentary about his on-field production. Harper has rubbed quite a few people the wrong way since high school. He has berated umpires, barked at pitchers, and admired his home runs. Not everyone finds that endearing. Count Hunter Strickland and Cole Hamels among the players who have had beef with him. So, no, Harper isn’t overrated. He’s just a polarizing personality that has been dealing with astronomical expectations since he put himself on the map as a high school phenom. Sleep on Harper if you must, but he’s only 26 years old. We may not have even seen him hit his ceiling yet.

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