PHILADELPHIA — The lion’s share of praise heaped upon Bryce Harper this season has been for his accomplishments at the plate. And deservedly so; Harper’s 1.134 OPS entering play Wednesday is the best compiled by a major-league hitter since Barry Bonds’ outrageous 1.422 mark in 2004.
Harper’s performance in the field, though, deserves some attention as well, because it has helped make him into the complete player who enters the season’s final two weeks as the odds-on favorite to win NL MVP honors.
The Nationals moved Harper to right field this spring on a permanent basis, a move that had been considered since the day he was drafted but was pushed back until Harper had a few years of experience and until Jayson Werth’s legs and shoulder made him a better option in left field.
The end result has been encouraging. After a bit of a feeling-out process early in the season, Harper has taken well to right field and blossomed into one of the best defenders at his position in the majors. According to the Elias Sports Bureau and Baseball-Reference.com, he ranks third among all MLB right fielders in both range factor and defensive WAR.
Harper’s eight assists rank eight among right fielders, but that number might be diminished in part by the fact opposing runners are taking fewer chances against him, respecting his arm.
“The reputation precedes itself a little bit,” manager Matt Williams said. “And you want that as a player, certainly. Knowing that when a guy leaves the batter’s box on a ball down the line, he’s thinking twice about going to second. He’s got a strong arm. He’s accurate. … That just helps our team. If they turn first but just stay there, then we’re always a pitch away from a double play.”
It has perhaps helped that Harper has been able to stay in one position the vast majority of the season, after bouncing around the outfield at times the last three years. Aside from nine fill-in starts in center field when both Denard Span and Michael Taylor were injured, Harper has played exclusively in right field, logging 1,095 2/3 of his 1,161 innings thre in 2015.
“He’s been able to settle in there and play the same position every day,” Williams said. “Understanding ballparks helps. Getting a chance to play within the division in all those ballparks, he gets a sense of where he’s at. And he can play accordingly. So, it helps, yeah. He loves to play center field, too. But I think he’s really comfortable where he is now.”