Bryce Harper not to blame for Phillies’ failure
With a 3-1 loss to the Nationals in the first game of Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader, the Phillies were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. It was apropos that the Nationals put the final nail in the coffin in D.C. as superstar outfielder Bryce Harper left the nation’s capital for Philadelphia when he signed a then-record 13-year, $330 million contract as a free agent.
There will be a lot of postmortems written about the Phillies and I’m willing to wager that a lot of them place some level of blame on Harper. I’d like to preemptively rebut such a notion. These are his 2018 and ’19 numbers (note: I slightly edited the screenshot to include the column headers):
14 points of OPS is nothing. The big difference is that Harper drew 31 fewer walks but his walk total last year was an outlier, not the norm.
Harper’s career adjusted OPS (a.k.a. OPS+) is 137. Harper’s average OPS+ since 2016 (the year after his outlier 2015 MVP season) is 130. He was at 133 in 2018 and 123 this year. Average is 100. Harper’s offense was more or less in line with expectations. Furthermore, Harper’s defense improved sharply. Baseball Reference rated him at 26 runs below average last year and six runs above average this year. With the shorthand conversion of 10 runs for one win, that’s an improvement of more than three wins with defense alone.
The actual causes for the Phillies’ demise are manyfold:
- Injuries: While teams like the Yankees thrived despite myriad injuries, the Phillies floundered. Two of the Phillies’ big offseason acquisitions -- Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson -- combined to appear in 66 games. The club also acquired corner outfielders Jay Bruce and Corey Dickerson, who were both productive when in the lineup but eventually succumbed to injury as well, as did speedy outfielder Roman Quinn. The Phillies’ bullpen was ravaged by injuries as Robertson was joined on the sidelines by Seranthony Domínguez, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, Víctor Arano, Juan Nicasio, Adam Morgan, Enyel De Los Santos, and Edubray Ramos. That’s an entire bullpen completely gone, save Héctor Neris. That’s why the Phillies had cast-offs like Mike Morin, Blake Parker, Jared Hughes, and Nick Vincent pitching in high-leverage situations throughout the second half. To round out the list, Phillies lost starters Jake Arrieta and Jerad Eickhoff to injuries.
- Lack of development: In particular, three starting pitchers failed to make any forward progress: Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta. Eflin and Pivetta’s strikeout rates both plummeted while all three saw their hard-hit rates jump noticeably. It’s easy to blame the juiced ball and the Phillies’ so-called bandbox of a ballpark, but that’s only a small piece of the puzzle. Though he was injured, Eickhoff can also be thrown onto the “lack of development” list as he just completed his fifth season. That the Phillies haven’t been able to turn just one of these guys into an above-average starting pitcher is not a good look for the club’s player development. It’s not just in the rotation, however. Third baseman Maikel Franco, once the organization’s top prospect, has been a bust. Nick Williams, once a hot prospect himself, was sent back to Triple-A earlier this year. And while the club saw strides from Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard, other prospects like Adonis Medina, De Los Santos, Mickey Moniak, Jojo Romero, and Luis Garcia have seen their stocks fall.
- Lack of depth: While few teams could withstand the totality of injuries the Phillies dealt with, the club’s lack of depth made it even harder to stay afloat. Backup catcher Andrew Knapp posted a .613 OPS in 69 games. Utilityman Sean Rodríguez mustered a .695 OPS. When he was healthy, Quinn had a measly .668 OPS. Utilityman Phil Gosselin, .626. The only bench player who passed muster was Brad Miller with a .781 OPS.
- Aaron Nola regressed: Nola finished third in NL Cy Young voting last year, compiling a 2.37 ERA and a 224/58 K/BB ratio in 212 1/3 innings. In 2019, he owns a 3.75 ERA with a 220/76 K/BB ratio in 196 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate is about the same, but his walk rate increased by more than two percent, from seven percent to 9.2 percent. Like his rotation mates, Nola’s hard-hit rate jumped considerably from 25.1 percent to 41.4 percent. While the altered baseball can explain some of the regression, it doesn’t explain all of it. The Phillies needed prime Nola down the stretch, but he has a 4.84 OPS in his last six starts, all resulting in team losses. The Phillies haven’t won a game he started since August 20 in Boston.
- No breakouts: Every successful team receives significantly above-average production from somewhere unexpected. The Yankees, for example, had multiple breakouts from Gio Urshela (133 OPS+), Mike Tauchman (128), Cameron Maybin (124), and Mike Ford (124). The Phillies’ breakouts were Scott Kingery and Adam Haseley. Kingery, who played six different positions, still only posted a 102 OPS+. Haseley flashed above-average defense but had a subpar 91 OPS+. And as mentioned, their other young but seasoned players failed to take the next step forward. All of this adds up to a team that justifiably has a -19 run differential.
- Rhys Hoskins slumped hard: Hoskins slashed .161/.342/.301 across 121 trips to the plate in August and .179/.270/.410 in 89 PA entering Monday’s action. One wonders how the Phillies might have looked if he was hitting at even the league average during the final two months of the season instead of significantly below average. Hoskins does have a major league-high 113 walks, but in the year of the juiced baseball, the Phillies have seen his slugging percentage dip 30 points overall compared to last year.
In an ideal world, Harper would be in the running for the NL MVP Award this season. That he isn’t an MVP candidate doesn’t mean the Phillies’ lack of success is his fault or that his 13-year contract is already a bad investment. Harper’s 123 OPS+ and 3.6 bWAR should be more than enough to help the Phillies get into the postseason. Baseball is a team sport. Harper did his part. His teammates didn’t. As a result, the Phillies are missing out on the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year.