Free-agent OF Bryce Harper is at a crossroads in his career. At 26, the ex-Nationals slugger is now seven seasons in. He’s a six-time all-star, a National League Rookie of the Year and a National League MVP – and somehow his career still seems underwhelming.
Every generation has a handful of players whose talent and skill level all but guarantee a hall of fame selection, but for one reason or another, they don’t fulfill their potential. Harper has not reached the point yet where he is one of those players – he still has his whole prime ahead of him. But the way his career is going, he could become a cautionary tale. Despite how big of a contract he gets in the next month, Harper is coming off his worst season as a professional, and right now his career looks very similar to another controversial player who had as much talent as most in Cooperstown, only to fall short of induction: OF J.D. Drew.
They may not have the same hairstylist, but if you look beyond the follicles, Harper and Drew have more in common, baseball-wise, than Ken Griffey Jr. and Ken Griffey Sr.
Legends in the Making
Harper and Drew were both legends before stepping one foot on an MLB field. Harper was a YouTube sensation at 16 after beating minor leaguers in a home run derby and crushing a 570-foot in Las Vegas and set a Tropicana Field record with a 502-foot shot during a high school home run derby, both were with an aluminum bat. He then appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 18. He graduated high school early, enrolling in the College of Southern Nevada and slashing a ridiculous .443/.526/.987 with 31 dingers as a 17-year-old in junior college. It’s like he was the baseball version of Ivan Drago: “Whatever he hits, he destroys.”
Drew came up at a simpler time – the late 90s. Before YouTube, before FanGraphs, before the Rally Monkey. A prospect so talented, Drew was a top-5 pick in the MLB Draft twice, despite signability concerns both times. On paper, he was everything you wanted in a baseball player. He had a sweet swing, an incredible eye and in 1998, he was coming off the best season of any college baseball hitter, ever. In fact, he still remains the only college player to have a 30/30 season. In total during his junior year at Florida State, Drew hit an insane .455 on his way to both the Dick Houser Trophy and the Golden Spikes Award.
First Seven Seasons
Both players spent minimal time in the minors (Harper 130 games, Drew 45) before being called up and neither wasted any time performing. In their first seven full seasons, Drew’s and Harper’s numbers are very similar, with Drew appearing to have the better start to his career (28.6 to 27.4 fWAR) despite Harper winning more accolades (Drew’s only all-star appearance came in his 10th season, in 2008 with Boston):
Note the batting average, OBP and slugging percentages are almost identical. Some of the counting stats might not be, however, until you factor in games played. Both players had at least three seasons where they missed at least 50 games per to injury in their first seven seasons, but Harper ended up playing more than 100 total games in that span. If we prorate Drew’s numbers from the 814 he played to the 927 Harper played, the similarity is even more striking:
Drew 1998-2005 prorated to 927 games:
The results might not be identical, but they are as close as Patty and Selma. Drew was ahead of the Moneyball explosion, as he was one of the best at working the count in the early 2000s, averaging roughly four pitchers per plate appearance. Fifteen years later and Harper is also one of the most selective in the league with an almost identical mark.
As it turns out that not only do Harper and Drew get the same results, they go about getting them in the same way.
Looking at their heat maps middle-away and low are their pitches of choice for these left-handed hitters, despite each having a pull rate of around 40%. In fact, they share a myriad of numbers regarding plate performance. Most of the numbers indicate a discriminating eye and a knack for squaring up the ball. Neither player had elite contact rates either outside the strike zone (Harper 61%, Drew 54%) or inside (Harper 84%, Drew 86%) for that matter. When they make contact though, it’s at the same rate and the same type, limiting soft contact (Harper 14.4%, Drew 14.5%), hammering line drives about as often (21% Harper, 19% Drew), and sharing a 37% fly-ball rate.
Of course, they’re not the same player exactly, with 42 more homers in his first seven seasons, it’s no wonder Harper has a better hard-contact percentage, but he is also more of a free swinger, with a nearly double (30% to 17%) O-swing rate. Even if they produce differently, they still yield the same results with Harper posting an OPS+ of 139 in seven seasons and Drew posting a 135.
Offense output isn’t the only thing enhancing Harper’s connection with Drew. There is also defense, baserunning, and hate. I can’t think of two players more hated in the last two decades who weren’t tied to PEDs. Oddly enough, they were hated for different reasons. Harper is hated by the opposing team’s fans for his flamboyant actions on the field, and his words off it. Drew is hated by his own team’s fans for a perceived lack of hustle and his longer than normal injury rehabilitation.
Oddly enough, despite Harper’s reputation for making the occasional spectacular play and Drew’s reputation for lackadaisical play, Drew is ranked as the better defender by multiple metrics. In their first seven seasons, Drew posted a dWAR of 4.1 that edged out Harper’s 3.0 while UZR vastly favors Drew (22 to 0.9) and Drew’s career in the OF yielded 26 defensive runs saved (DRS) while Harper’s is just two. Baserunning numbers are negligible as well, with Drew earning a 3.1 UBR to Harper’s 3.0.
Ironically, the starkest contrast between Drew and Harper’s early careers is what everyone thought it would be: the hustle of defense and baserunning, but the analytics favor Drew.
There is more evidence to compare these two players than Harper fans would like to admit, but that doesn’t mean this trend will continue. Drew had an admirable career, but it ultimately goes down in baseball history as a disappointment — and one with fewer accolades than he deserved because of his unfortunate beginning with the Philadelphia Phillies. His lack of hustle and focus on baseball were evident at Florida State, where an assistant coach motivated Drew by taping a light switch to his locker. Money proved to be his only real motivator as Drew’s legacy is that of the type of player you could only count on to flip that switch during a contract year.
The inexplicable ups and downs that marked Drew’s 14 seasons are remarkably similar to Harper’s seven seasons so far. How can the same player hit .330 with 42 HR in 2015 and hit .243 and 24 HR in 2016? Also, there are questions about Harper’s mental toughness. During a May 2016 four-game series vs. the Cubs, Harper was walked 13 times in 19 plate appearances, including an MLB record six free passes in the series finale. He hasn’t been the same player MVP-caliber player since before that series.
Maybe Harper needs a fresh start to reboot his career. Or maybe his career will continue to trend in the way of Drew’s. That of a hall-of-fame talent that was only realized once every three seasons.