By the end of the 2015 baseball season, Bryce Harper smashed over 40 home runs, hit for a .330 average and became the focus of the baseball world. The numbers he produced exceeded all expectations along with exceeding his statistical profile. These numbers brought back the expectations of a Bryce Harper that entered the baseball world at the ultra-young age of 19 in 2012 putting up numbers rivaled only by one Mike Trout. Harper, then encountered two consecutive injury riddled seasons in 2013 and 2014 and all those expectations were temporarily put on hold.
The 2015 Bryce Harper set the stage for 2016 expectations that found him sitting in the top 3 of most fantasy baseball draft boards, including one of my dynasty leagues where I had the number 1 pick. After some debate on whether to choose Harper or Trout, I settled on Trout. This turned out to be a very wise move because the 2016 Bryce Harper proved to be, in my honest opinion, a top 3 pick BUST all the way around.
Granted, Harper put up a respectable 24 round-trippers, 21 stolen bags along with 80+ Runs and RBI’s, however, his batting average turned out to be a fantasy team’s nightmare and in no way, could be considered worthy of a top 3 draft pick (sure am glad I chose Trout in that draft!). This all set the stage for a recent article I wrote on rebound candidates for 2017 where I included Harper as one of my top choices for a rebound based on several factors that can be reviewed here. This challenged my inner self to go back and take another look at my data to see if I may have made a mistake. The remainder of this article goes into some extra detail beyond my original article that should provide the DSE readers with a better picture of whether we should consider Bryce Harper as a 2017 STUD or DUD. So without further ado;
CURRENT 2017 (PERCEIVED) VALUE
Current ADP’s have Harper sitting at the 7th to 12th pick. NFBC ADP’s have him sitting at 9.5. In my most recent draft, Harper was taken at number 9. I had the #7 pick and personally, never considered taking him with the 7th pick. So, is Harper worth a mid-first round pick? ZIPS projects him hitting .280 with near 30 homers, 80/80 on runs and RBI’s and around 15 stolen bases. I suppose if he reaches the expectations stated, one could say yes.
However, if you’re a realistic, risk averse person like me, and consider the accuracy of even the best projection system being no better than 70% at best, you’ll probably be a bit skeptical, and rightly so. The biggest question is whether Harper can sustain the projected .280 batting average, and without a doubt, there is good reason to question this hefty projection. Let’s take a deeper dive into this aspect of Harper’s game.
The first thing I notice is that his .280 projection sits just a couple of points higher than his current career average, so it appears that ZIPS is simply taking a rather safe projection route. However, his 2015 batting average of .330 is about 50 points higher than any other season he’s played in. This rather skews the true batting average potential of Harper and sparks a concern that we’ll dissect a bit more in the next section of this article.
From a true skills perspective, let’s look at Harper’s contact rate, because contact rate tells us a lot about a players’ ability to put the bat on the ball, and when your bat hits the ball, more good things happen than when you don’t.
Bryce currently owns a career contact rate of near 77%, which doesn’t exactly scream 280 hitter. When I throw out his abysmal 2014 contact rate of just above 70%, Harper sits steadily around the 75%-78%. In fact, as I browse career batting averages and associated contact rates, less than 15% of qualified batters hold a career batting average between .275 – .285 with contact rates between 75% and 78%. To put this into even better context, only 4% of qualified batters batted .275 – .285 with contact rates between 70% and 75%.
The good news is that it seems to be creeping upwards over the last couple years combined with an improving BB/K rate. However, this seems to be overshadowed by an underlying contact rate that simply doesn’t favor a projected batting average of .280. To me, this limits his current perceived value of a top 10 pick. Combine this with the fact that his projection for 2017 builds in a 2015 average that’s nowhere near in line with his career numbers, it leads us to consider whether the 2015 season was for real. So, let’s take a deeper look.
THE 2015 BRYCE HARPER – OUTLIER OR PRECURSOR?
Below is a quick graphic overview of the monster season Bryce Harper experienced in 2015. Keep in mind that in his 2015 season, Harper was only 22 years old and was entering his 4th MLB season. This is a fact that really needs to be considered when trying to evaluate whether his 2015 season was an outlier or a precursor to the future.
The 2015 Bryce Harper does not match anything we see in the above data except for his wOBA. In fact, most of the changes are simply astonishing in my opinion. A 58-point jump in batting average, a 109-point jump in on-base percentage, a 52-point jump in BABIP and most surprising of all a 126-point jump in ISO. So, what happened? How can we explain this improvement in one year versus 3 years of data?
Well, obviously, we can consider a 2013 and 2014 that were riddled by injury. Sure, that must be the reason, right? Well let’s see if the 2015 from 2012 Bryce Harper seems plausible.
All-in-all, the 2012 numbers alone don’t differ much from the 2012-2014 combined numbers and to me screams that 2015 was a FLUKE and could never be sustained long-term. Harper almost doubled his HR/FB rate in 2015 accompanied by a near 10% increase in hard contact and a 6% shift in pull% compared to opposite field %. All this in stark contrast to career output, which further supports the fluke verdict.
Harper’s 2016 season validated that to some extent. This moves us right along trying to answer if:
2016 BRYCE HARPER WAS REALLY THAT BAD?
Let’s face it, a .243 batting average for a top 5 fantasy pick is simply unacceptable. I don’t care if he hits 50 home runs, the effect on your batting average is just not worth it in my opinion. So, what happened to the 2015 Harper that we all expected to see in 2016?
Well, for starters, the HR/FB, pull rate and opposite field percentage mentioned previously, all came back to career norms. All this justifies the ISO drop and when you throw in a slight drop in LD% and a hard contact rate that returned to normal, you end up with a slumping BABIP of .264, over 40 points below normal, reasonably explaining the sad batting average.
A CASE FOR 2017 OPTIMISM?
The fact is that Bryce Harper is steadily improving regardless of his injury riddled 2013-2014 seasons and, more importantly, he is just 23 years old entering his 5th major league season. You simply can’t be anything but optimistic, thus explaining his top ten ADP status.
We can also include a spring training that lands him in the top echelon of players entering opening day. At the time of this article he sits atop the spring training home run ranks with a batting average over .300 with over 50 spring training at-bats. Throw in more walks than strikeouts, 9 versus 8, and more extra base hits than hits at 11/16, it appears he’s making great contact and seeing the ball well as he enters the 2017 season.
Statistically, there’s nothing indicating Harper will do worse than 2016, and everything I’ve reviewed so far indicates he should fall solidly between his 2012 and 2015 performance levels. There’s also reason to believe Harper will improve on his dismal 2016 batting average, although, I can’t jump on the .280 batting average wagon that ZIPS did, just yet.
So, as the 2017 season begins, you can likely expect good things from Bryce Harper. Based on the differing claims, I still stand behind my comeback claim for Harper this season and can’t support the “bust” claim based on the data that I’ve reviewed so far.
However, if someone sees something I missed, please bring it to my attention by commenting on this article below.