Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bryce Harper Review

Mike Trout ruined baseball for everyone. His first three full season in MLB have been so good that everyone forgets just how amazing and unique his talent at that age is. Unlike football or basketball, where you see all stars who picked up the game in high school, baseball’s skill set is so unique that it’s rare to see someone succeed at such a young age like Trout has been able to do. That is why Bryce Harper is under appreciated. He’s not Mike Trout, but there has almost never been another Mike Trout. Let’s take a closer look at Bryce to see what I’m getting it.

 2014 Season Review

Due to injuries, Bryce only played in 100 regular season games in 2014. Over that time, he hit .273/.344/.423 with 13 home runs. Looking at the line, it almost seems too high considering the slump Bryce found himself in during the middle of the season. It should remind everyone how good he is, when he can stay healthy. Of course, that is always the catch with Bryce. He has struggled with injuries practically every year of his major league career. There is some talent to staying healthy, meaning that some players actually are injury prone. Nationals fans only need one reminder of Nick Johnson to appreciate that. I’m not ready to write off Bryce Harper as injury prone just yet, though. Unlike someone like Wilson Ramos who has struggled with hamstring injuries year after year, Bryce’s injuries stem from running into a wall (not the first outfielder to do so while playing in a foreign ball park) and sliding into a base (not the only player to do that in 2014, and not even the only one on the Nationals in 2014). Yes, you may attribute those injuries to his playing style, but I see them as more freak occurrences that carry little predictive value. As Harper gains experience, I would expect to see less of those types of problems.

Even dealing with a thumb injury that is notoriously hard to beat, Bryce’s rate stats in 2014 were very consistent with his prior two years. He hit a similar number of line drives and wasn’t swinging at pitches out of the zone any more than normal. His walk rate was down and his strike out rate were up, however. That can be attributed to a noticeable drop in contact. His contact% in 2014 was only 72.7% versus 77.2% and 76.3% in 2013 and 2012, respectively. While it’s useless to speculate on the health of Bryce’s hand in 2014, I’m going to do just that because why not? It looks to me like that finger injury was really limiting his ability to control the bat, and I remember him constantly fidgeting with his protective cast between swings after first returning to play. I picked a totally arbitrary start date of 7/18/14 (a day when Bryce went 3-4 against the Brewers) as the day Bryce finally came back to “100%” health. From that day to the end of the season, Bryce hit .288/.359/.454 with 11 home runs. Of course that is an arbitrary time period, but could that be a sign of a healthy Bryce and what he is capable of going into 2015? 

Comparing Bryce to his Peers

As the number one overall draft pick essentially straight out high school (OK, yes he skipped his last year of high school to play JuCo because no one wanted to pitch to him but age wise still in high school), Harper is in rarified air. Going back to 1985, only 38 high school position players were drafted with one of the first 5 picks. Of those picks, 32% failed to record any major league playing time whatsoever (that includes 2011-2013 draft picks who obviously still have plenty of time to make it, however a couple of them are already older than Bryce was when he debuted). From this data set, I pulled all players who have recorded positive WAR (by Fangraph’s calculations) by the age of 22 and their cumulative WAR at that age (Harper’s current age). Take a look at this list:

Harper ranks fourth, ahead of soon to be hall of famer Chipper Jones and Twins main stay Joe Mauer. Manny Machado ranks just ahead of Bryce, due mostly to his stellar defense at third base. Otherwise, Bryce trails only Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, pretty good company to keep, no matter your personal view on Alex Rodriguez of late. Some other names on my list that you don’t see here are BJ Upton, Adrian Gonzalez, and Vernon Wells as they had only compiled negative WAR through the age of 22. Other peers of Harper’s who hadn’t made the majors by 22 include Dmitri Young (look how skinny he is now!) and Josh Hamilton. Finally, I looked at this pool of players to see when they “peaked” in terms of highest career WAR. On average, their age 25 season was the best WAR output and they average nearly 4 WAR in those peak seasons. Considering Harper put up WAR scores of 4.4 and 3.8 his first two years, I think it’s fair to assume his ceiling is higher than average, even for this pool of players. So for everyone lamenting the failure of Bryce Harper or pitching trade proposals with Harper as the center piece, maybe we should wait a season or two to see what Bryce’s peak really looks like. Even the great Mike Trout had to adjust to life in the majors.

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