He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16. He became the first overall pick in the draft at 17. He reached the majors and made the All-Star team at 19. He won an MVP Award at 22. He became one of the most coveted free agents in history at age 26. Now after a wait that lasted into spring training Bryce Harper is headed to Philadelphia.
Harper’s 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies will keep him in the NL East, where he spent the past seven seasons mashing 184 home runs for the Nationals.
That Harper landed with the Phillies isn’t necessarily a surprise. Harper might have had hopes of signing with the Yankees or Dodgers, but the two franchises with big-spending ways in their not-too-recent pasts never seemed to generate many rumors that they were interested in the six-time All-Star — at least not at Scott Boras’ price.
Philadelphia had geared up for this offseason for several years now and was determined to not be outbid for both of the in-their-prime stars available this winter. The Phillies, who showed promise last season before stumbling to an 80-82 record, now have the big bat to anchor their lineup and a signature move for an offseason that also included bringing in J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura. Harper could help them post their first winning season — and earn their first playoff berth — since 2011, when they capped a run of five straight division titles.
Harper adds star power to a team that has lacked it ever since the demise of that dynasty (at least until Aaron Nola had a Cy Young-caliber season in 2018). No Phillies position player has picked up even a 10th-place vote in MVP balloting since Carlos Ruiz in 2012, but Harper brings MVP potential. He was the unanimous winner in 2015, when he was the best hitter in baseball, batting .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and 124 walks. That 10.0-WAR season ranks as the best by a National League position player since Barry Bonds.
Harper was also in the running for MVP in 2017 before he stumbled over first base in mid-August and suffered a bone bruise that forced him to miss most of the rest of the season. He finished at .319/.413/.595 with 29 home runs in 111 games.
That’s the Harper the Phillies hope they’ve added to a lineup that ranked 11th in the NL in runs, 10th in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging percentage last year but now looks vastly improved:
1B Rhys Hoskins
Harper’s left-handed bat brings better balance to the lineup than Machado’s right-handed bat would have, and he and McCutchen both had higher OBPs in 2018 than anybody on the Phillies.
What remains to be seen, however, is how much the Phillies improved their major-league-worst defense that was credited with minus-146 defensive runs saved — 46 worse than any other team and a whopping 303 runs worse than the league-leading Diamondbacks. Harper had a terrible defensive season in 2018, credited with minus-26 DRS, tied with new teammate Hoskins as the second-worst figure of any defender. Still, the Phillies have upgraded in left from Hoskins to McCutchen and at shortstop (they were a combined minus-23 DRS at the position). Harper has been a better defender in the past — plus-1 DRS over 2016 and 2017 — so he still projects as an improvement over Williams.
Of course, the questions about Harper aren’t just on the defensive side of the ball. He has been up-and-down at the plate the past four seasons, leading to wide fluctuations in his WAR:
2015: .330/.460/.649, 10.0 WAR
2016: .243/.373/.441, 1.5 WAR
2017: .319/.413/.595, 4.7 WAR
2018: .249/.393/.496, 1.3 WAR
Harper’s 2016 struggles can likely be explained by a shoulder injury. He got off to a monster start, hitting .286/.406/.714 with nine home runs in April before slowing down and finishing with 24 home runs in 147 games. Harper and the Nationals never admitted to any kind of injury, and he never went on the disabled list. He did miss time in mid-August with a stiff neck, and in spring training of 2017, he said he knew “exactly why” he struggled, though he wouldn’t elaborate.
He bounced back in 2017 before the knee injury. The season that is harder to explain is the one that just happened. Once again, Harper tore out of the gate, hitting .315 with eight home runs in his first 17 games. Then came an extended slump that dropped his average as low as .209 on June 20. On July 28, he was still at .218, but he rescued his season those final two-plus months, hitting .305/.442/.538 and leading the critics to point out that he produced only after the Nationals fell off the pace in the NL East race.
Was he pressing? Did he become too homer-happy? He maintained his high walk rate, but his strikeout rate jumped from 19.6 percent the previous three seasons to 24.3 percent. Although he wasn’t chasing pitches at a higher rate, he was swinging and missing more often:
2015: 26.9 percent
2016: 23.1 percent
2017: 26.8 percent
2018: 31.4 percent
He also became a lot more pull-happy, which could fit with the trying to hit home runs theory:
2015: 44.2 percent
2016: 39.3 percent
2017: 36.1 percent
2018: 47.6 percent
His 2017 season might also have been helped by a high average on ground balls: He hit .359 on grounders, compared to his career mark of .263 (including .257 in 2015 and .223 in 2018).
All of this to say that Harper’s ultimate production is a huge wild card. He should receive a big boost from playing half his games at Citizens Bank Park: The past three seasons, only Yankee Stadium had a higher home run factor for left-handed hitters (Nationals Park was essentially neutral). Even in a down year in 2018, Harper posted a .399 OBP and tied for 15th in the majors in park-adjusted wRC+. He’s a valuable hitter even if he isn’t hitting .300.
Before the signing, FanGraphs projected the Phillies’ record to be 80-82. The projection of Harper as a 4.9-WAR player would be about a four-win upgrade for Philadelphia. Of course, we’ve seen Harper play at a much higher level. If that happens, even for just a few seasons at the beginning of the contract, the upgrade will be even greater — and nobody will question if the money was worth it.