It seems like every year, the baseball world discusses the possibility of that particular season serving as a breakout campaign for Bryce Harper. And it seems like every year, by his own design (read: playing like his hair is on fire) or otherwise, Harper has found a way to let us down. Could this year be different? Is it time for Harper to become the superstar we were all promised when he was drafted? Now seems as good a time as any.
Harper is going into his fourth season at the big league level, and has played just 218 games combined in the last two years. Had it not been for injuries derailing his 2014 season, we might be talking about 2015 being a followup to something special, rather than continuing to discuss the apparently elusive breakout campaign. Yet, here we are, throwing around the overly premature “bust” narrative when his name comes up.
Let’s discuss some things in regard to this Mr. Harper. For one, he’s younger than Kris Bryant. He’s younger than Javier Baez. He’s younger than George Springer. He won’t turn 23 until October. That’s a fairly significant fact that the vast majority of folks, particularly his critics, seem to overlook.
Then there’s this interesting little bit from August Fagerstrom over at FanGraphs/Fox Sports. He cites players that experienced a 30 percent or more drop in their wOBA from one season to another, and how they rebounded in that third year. Harper was obviously among them, going from .371 in 2013 to just .338 last season. His rebound status for the upcoming season is obviously undetermined at this point.
However, noted in the article were names like Giancarlo Stanton, who went from a .405 wOBA to .368, back up to .403. Starlin Castro also demonstrated a rebound to a higher wOBA in that third season than in the first. Eric Hosmer did it. Justin Upton did it. Matt Kemp and Troy Tulowitzki did it.
Are these perfect comparisons for Harper? No, especially when you consider skill set, injury history, etc. Does this make Harper a lock to break out? Of course not. But it does show precedent and bodes well for his performance moving forward. As does his postseason performance from last season. Sample size be damned, he still hit three monster home runs and slugged .882 for the series, providing some of the only offense for the Washington Nationals in that NLDS against San Francisco.
Already a strong hitter, in terms of his ability to hit for line drives, Harper should be able to get his contact rate back up to where it was in his first two years, after it dropped over five percent to just 72% in 2014. His HR/FB ratio should also restore itself. If not because of him returning to his ratio of the first two seasons, then simply because he spent the offseason getting absolutely jacked. Seriously, look at those forearms.
Bryce Harper is always going to attract an unnecessary amount of criticism. Whether it’s his attitude or the completely unnecessary comparison to Mike Trout, he’s certainly the polarizing type. He may even be a rare villain in the baseball world. But there’s no doubting the skill set. Heck, his own peers voted him as the most overrated player in the game.
The projections, for whatever they might be worth, seem to favor Harper. ZiPS has him at a modest 121 games, with a slash line of .280/.365/.494/.859, to go along with 22 home runs and a .214 ISO, as well as a .375 wOBA (which would fall in line with Fagerstrom’s list of rebounds in the last 15 years). They also feature him dropping his K-rate by about four percent and walking at a two percent increase. All of that equates to a 3.7 projected fWAR, which is the lowest out of any projection for him in the upcoming season.
He’s looked excellent during the spring, going for a .444 on-base percentage and 13 walks against 11 strikeouts. His home runs have been mammoth shots. He’s giving us every reason to believe in him heading into the upcoming campaign, and we should. With the Nationals serving as a seemingly unanimous pick to capture their first World Series title in 2015, Harper should be right in the middle of everything they do as the season wears on.