After a 2018 campaign that made fans question his long term outlook, the Phillies should feel comfortable for now.
Let’s start with an obvious question: what is “normal” for Bryce Harper? Is a normal Harper—as in, Harper as if he existed in a vacuum without injuries or outside interference—2015, where he hit .330/.460/.649, or is normal Harper moving forward more like last season, where he hit .249/.393/.496?
The latter is still a fine player, probably a three-to-four-win player at best. Yet if you’re the Phillies you just committed a whopping 13 years and $330 million to Harper, and the hope is that he’s more like the 2015 version of himself than the 2018 version himself. I’ll split the difference: he’s actually 2017.
By 2017 I more mean that the performance will be similar in rate-based stats, that he could hit at a 155 wRC+ clip and put up a six-win year over a full season, which he didn’t even do that season. Let’s break down how we get there, because it’s even more circuitous than we would normally think for a player such as him.
The funny thing about Harper’s season so far is that he actually hasn’t made much contact: 54.2% of his plate appearances so far have ended with a walk or a strikeout, split evenly between the two. Part of the reason he’s struck out so much has been the increased use of sliders and curves against him, which is basically par-for-the-course in today’s game:
Considering his swinging strike rate is a huge 18.3% this season, the breaking stuff is largely to do with it:
Good hitters hit roadblocks of tough pitching competition and adjustments all the time—think Mike Trout when he was attacked up in the zone—but taking advantage of the right opportunities make all the difference. This is why he’s basically smacked everything that he has made contact with, meaning about a quarter of his batted balls have been converted into barrels:
That has led to 27.3% of batted balls as barrels so far, well over 10% his previous season marks. That’s led to an odd expected batted ball profile as well. While this high proportion of barreled balls have given him top marks—a .676 xSLG, .491 xWOBA, and a 91.5 mph average exit velocity—it also means this his xBA is only .278, which is pretty strange. This is because none of his contact is listed as “solid,” it’s either been topped, flared, or barreled, which tells an interesting story.
In many ways we know that the barreled balls will regress. He’s hitting at a 58-home run pace which is not sustainable, nor are walk and strikeout rates above 25%. And I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that he is “normal” again, so to speak. Pitchers are going to give him fewer fastballs, and fewer pitches in the zone (by about four percentage points). Yet when the pitcher has made a mistake, Harper has made them pay.
This bodes incredibly well if you’re a Phillies fan. Naturally pitchers will regress to giving him a few more pitches in the zone, and he will regress by not barreling every mistake but instead hitting more solidly hit balls for a myriad number of doubles and even home runs. The key is the top-line—remember, he had batted balls at the beginning of the season that match exit velocity highs of the previous season—so the maxim should be that if a historically good hitter is hitting the ball very, very hard, then it’s likely that while healthy he will continue to hit the ball hard.
Will this version of Harper look “normal” in the sense that his batting line will mirror 2017 batting line? Probably not if he continues to get more breaking stuff or continues to get fewer pitches in the zone. But ZiPS rightly projects him to hit .266/.415/.567 with 41 home runs and, importantly, the fifth most WAR in the big leagues at 6.1 WAR. Do the math yourself and a couple of seasons of that will help quickly return the investment of the second-biggest North American sports contract, only a testament to why he got that cash in the first place.