Bryce Harper Dynasty Deep Dive: Overrated or Misunderstood?
Is there any more polarizing player in baseball/fantasy baseball than Bryce Harper? Ever since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as the “Chosen One” back when he was just 16, the hype on Harper has been astronomically high. And for part of his career, he’s lived up to that hype. The keyword there is part. Injuries and inconsistencies have plagued Harper throughout his career which is the cause for this article today. Should we still consider Bryce Harper a dynasty stud? Or is it better we leave him alone to be another owner’s headache? Let’s dig in, shall we?
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Bryce Harper in Dynasty: Overrated or Misunderstood?
Back in his 2015 MVP season, Harper slashed a robust .330/.460/.649/1.109 with 42 home runs, 99 RBI, and 118 runs scored, making him one of the top overall players in fantasy and the consensus #2 overall pick behind Mike Trout the following season. He led the league in runs, home runs, OBP, SLG, and OPS that season. This 2015 season is exactly the type of season that lives up to the hype he received as a teenager. Unfortunately, that’s been the only season when he’s lived up to the hype.
Sure, you can’t really count pre-2015 too much as he was a young kid. However, every other season has been disappointing on some level. That’s not to say he hasn’t had good seasons, because he definitely has, but they never seem to quite match his lofty ADP each season. Some of that has been due to injuries, while the rest has been pain and simple underperformance.
Following his MVP season and ascension into the Fantasy ADP top-3, Harper had a solid, yet disappointing season in 2016. Any time you pump out a 20/20 season with 170 combined runs and RBI, over 100 walks, and a .373 OBP, it’s going to be looked at as a good season. Most MLB players would sacrifice one of their limbs for that type of season. Well, not really as they wouldn’t be able to play after that, but you pick up what I’m putting down. But while that was a good season, it’s underwhelming for a top-3 overall pick. Trust me, I had plenty of Bryce Harper shares in 2016 (and almost every season for that matter). And when you factor in his .243 average that season, it pushes the needle into the disappointing department.
The very next season, Harper was on an MVP pace once again. As of August 12, Harper was slashing .326/.419/.614/1.034 with around a 40 HR, 120 RBI, 130 R pace. Yay, Harper is back! That might have been true before that gruesome knee injury on the night that against San Francisco which cost him a month and a half of time. DAMN YOU MLB FOR NOT CALLING THAT GAME!
Then last year, Harper slugged 34 homers, led the league with 130 walks, and reached the 100-RBI plateau for the first time. All good things. But, and you knew there was a but coming, the batting average dipped 70 points down to .249. Luckily, his strong walk rate kept his OBP near .400.
Bryce Harper hit a 458-foot bomb against his former team 👀
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 3, 2019
So, what about this season? It is 2019 after all. As I’m writing this, Harper is currently on paternity leave for the birth of his first child. From one dad to another, welcome to the world of fatherhood Bryce.
The 2019 season has been another strong season for Harper, but still has left a disappointing taste in his owner’s mouths. Through 125 games, Harper has slashed .254/.373/.497/.870 with 31 doubles, 27 home runs, 92 RBI, 77 runs, seven steals, and 85 walks. He’s currently on pace for the most RBI of his eight-year career (Damn, he’s been around eight years!), 2nd most home runs, 4th most runs scored, most doubles, 4th most walks, 2nd most total bases, and 2nd most hits. But once again, people see that .254 average and throw the overrated label on Harper. Is that fair? Misguided? Let’s dig in.
Bryce Harper Dynasty Deep Dive
Let’s start with Bryce Harper’s contact skills as that is what is driving this “overrated” train for the most part. As I mentioned above, this is Harper’s 8th Major League season and he’s yet to have a contact rate above 80%. Yes, that includes his 2015 MVP campaign. His contact rate that season was 75.4% and peaked in 2016 at 79.2%. During that peak in 2016, Harper ranked 79th out of 146 qualified hitters in contact rate. So even in his absolute best contact season, he still barely cracked the top-80.
Since then, Harper’s contact rate has been heading south for the winter, declining in every season since and plummeting to a career-low 68.1% this season. To make that sound even worse, that 68.1% ranks 141st out of 145 qualified hitters this season. The only four below Harper are Javier Baez, Khris Davis, Luke Voit, and Franmil Reyes.
The problem is, pitchers have figured out Harper’s weakness. Without question, Harper is still one of the most feared hitters in the game. Like him or not, it’s the truth. But pitchers have figured out the chinks in the armor over time and attacked them as much as they could.
That’s a ton of charts I just threw at you. So let me give you the cliff notes version of the above. Basically, Bryce Harper struggles with pitches down and away and crushes middle and middle in. Guess where pitchers have been throwing him the most? Down and away? And guess where they have been trying to avoid? Middle and middle in. Makes sense right? Granted, it’s advised to avoid the middle of the plate in general if you’re a pitcher, but especially so against Bryce Harper. Teams have also noticed a pull-heavy tendency on Harper’s ground balls and have shifted accordingly.
That’s a total of 79% of his ground balls that go up the middle or to right field. Not hard to figure out how to shift on him with numbers like these. It’s not like Harper has an overly high groundball rate or anything (41.7% for his career), but unless he can go the other way more or cut back on his grounders some, his batting average is going to continue to be suppressed as it has for every season outside of 2015 and 2017. Harper recorded the lowest groundball rate of his career in 2015 and his 2nd highest oppo%/2nd lowest pull% in 2017. Coincidence? I think not.
Luckily for Harper, his strong walk rate has led to high OBPs, even in his worst AVG seasons. Harper’s lowest OBP in a single season was .340 back in his rookie year and has not dipped below .373 in any of the last five seasons. And in two of those five seasons, he had an OBP north of .400, including that league-leading .460 mark in 2015. For his career, Harper’s OBP sits at .386 which is the 7th highest mark in baseball since he entered the league in 2012. Going up from him in 7th, we have Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Aaron Judge, Juan Goato Soto, Mike Trout, and the OBP kind, Joey Votto. That’s some pretty damn good company to be in. Maybe, just maybe, you’d enjoy owning Bryce Harper more if you played in an OBP league.
While we can’t always bank on the batting average being consistent, what we can bank on is the power. Ever since he was 16, Harper has had some of the best left-handed raw power of this generation. The countless batting practice blasts, the HR derby show, and even a 400-plus foot broken bat home run a few years back. The dude is strong and his stat cast data this season below backs that up.
It hasn’t just been this season either…
There’s a lot of red in that table. To simplify it to concrete numbers, Harper has averaged 34 doubles and 34 home runs per every 600 at-bats so far in his Major League career. But the problem is, he’s only hit that 34-homer mark twice in a season, mostly due to a plethora of injuries in his career. He was well on his way to 34-plus dingers in 2017 before the knee injury and got off to a torrid power start to the 2016 season, hitting nine home runs by April 24th.
Then his power nearly vanished. Harper hit just four homers in May, three in June, four in July, three in August, and one in September. There were rumors he was battling through a shoulder injury for most of the season. The Nationals denied that claim but you got to wonder what happened to his power for the last five months of that season.
Bryce Harper Dynasty Outlook
Alright, time to wrap this puppy up. Is Bryce Harper overrated? Careful, call him overrated like the heckler below and he’ll make you eat your words.
oVeRrAtEd 🔊 pic.twitter.com/GRiIru07oK
— Cut4 (@Cut4) August 10, 2019
The above basically sums up Bryce Harper’s career in a nutshell. But back to the question, is he overrated? To put it simply, yes. At one point he was put on the same pedestal as Mike Trout. Trout quickly ended that like Daniel LaRusso ended Johnny Lawrence in the championship fight in The Karate Kid.
Nobody in their right mind had Harper near Trout anymore. But at the same time, many still look at Harper as an elite dynasty asset then call him overrated when he doesn’t reach that lofty status. Stop. Just stop. Is Harper the issue or are we the issue? When Harper is on the field, he’s a very good player and one of the top power threats in the game. But he’s not an elite hitter. Stop thinking of him as one and value him as a very good hitter that can maybe give you some elite stretches here and there. That’s what Harper is. I’ve adjusted his ranking in my dynasty ranks accordingly over the last couple of years. After 2015, I had Harper ranked 2nd behind Trout. Now he’s more appropriately ranked down at 20th.
According to Fantrax, Harper has been the 28th most valuable hitter this season, the 11th most valuable in 2018, and was 50th in 2017 even with the month and a half stint on the now extinct Disabled List. Had he not gotten injured that season, he was on a top-10 pace.
Now, I’m not ruling out another elite season or two from Harper. Could it all click again and he puts together another MVP season? Sure could. But due to all the metrics we went over above, he’s more than likely going to remain in this range that he’s been in the last couple of seasons. That being a guy that hits .250-.270, 30-35 home runs, around 200 R+RBI give or take, and an OBP near .400 due to his strong walk rate. It should be noted that those are full-season numbers for Harper. The fact that he’s averaged 131.3 games played from 2013 to 2018 also needs to be in the back of your mind at all times.
If I was in a dynasty startup draft today, Harper is a guy I’d look at in the late 2nd round or in the 3rd round. In OBP leagues, he gets a bump up a handful of spots, likely into the high teens. If you own Harper and go into each season expecting very good, but not elite, production, a potential IL stint, and steaks of greatness, you’ll likely be fairly happy with Harper at season’s end.
The title of this article is really a rhetorical question as both are correct. We have overrated Bryce Harper for many years now. However, we have also reached the point where we have misunderstood his true value. Hopefully, that’s in the past now and we can enjoy watching a very good hitter in this game and one of the most entertaining players around without the lofty MVP expectations every single season. And who knows, with Harper’s raw talent, he might just mess around and win another MVP award someday.
Photo/Video Credit: Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire, Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire, Baseball Savant, Cut4, Bleacher Report.
Eric Cross is the lead MLB/Fantasy Baseball writer and MiLB prospect analyst for FantraxHQ and has been with the site since March 2017. In the past, he wrote for FantasyPros and FanSided. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) and a contributor in the best-selling Fantasy Baseball Black Book. For more from Eric, check out his author page and follow him on Twitter @EricCross04.
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