Has Bryce Harper Made His Final All-Star Game?
Am I hating on Bryce Harper? Yes.
In my defense, there is plenty of that going around these days, especially in Cleveland, where apparently everywhere you went, Major League Baseball made you think that Harper was an all-star. He was included in the midsummer showcase marketing as the face of the Phillies, much to the enjoyment of Harper haters. They got even more joy out of Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, who basically flat out said Harper should be in the all-star game because he’s Harper, suggesting some kind of Kardashianization of the American pastime.
Yes, it’s a good time to hate on Harper, but even I wouldn’t be asking the question: “Will Bryce Harper Ever be an All-Star Again?” if his performance didn’t open the door.
Still, while Harper’s mind-boggling, mid-prime regression is the focus of answering this question, there are other factors in play, including the incoming wave of young talent into the National League since 2017, the development of all-star talent on Harper’s own team, and finally the combination of Harper’s personality and living up to the expectations of his one-time record-setting contract. There’s a lot to dig into here to answer this question, so allow me to hand you a shovel:
Whether it is the tightness of the string inside the baseball, the lowering of its seams, or a league-wide change in hitting strategy, Major League Baseball is in the middle of a power surge unlike any other in its history—including the steroid era. Just over halfway through the season and we’re on pace for almost 6,700 dingers, which would be 500 more than the record of 6,105 set in 2017. For just about every hitter, balls are flying over the fence at a rate to match or exceed their personal bests—except for a slight minority of hitters, which includes Harper.
The $330 million dollar man hasn’t been bad this year, let’s make that clear. He’s on pace to finish in the top 10 in OBP and RBI. He’s also on pace, however, for 189 strikeouts and just 29 home runs. That would tie his third-highest HR total, but to be fair, the other time he finished with 29 homers was in 2017, a season in which he played just 111 games. It would also be his career-high in strikeouts, topping a mark he set just last year at 169. Does this sound like the kind of player that the Phillies thought they were getting?
|Bryce Harper||K Rate||BB Rate||ISO|
Obviously not, but that might just be because they weren’t paying attention. Like the rest of the league, Harper has been striking out an increasingly higher rate every year since 2016, starting with an 18.66% mark. Now he’s at 26.58%. Is his walk rate rising too? Yes, in a way. It’s not a linear progression, but overall, Harper has been increasing his walk rate, despite it being 17.22% in 2016 and 14.94% today. What else is notable is that Harper’s ISO has also been on the decline, falling by nearly 30 points each year from 2017 to now at a mark of .217.
|Bryce Harper||Exit Velocity||Launch Angle|
What can account for the decline? It’s difficult to say. Harper’s exit velocity has stayed above 90 mph since 2017, and his hard contact rate has actually never been higher at 45.6%. What is different is his launch angle. When he hit his career-high 42 home runs in 2015, Harper’s launch angle was 14.6. That angle has fallen almost every season all the way down to 12.0. So he’s hitting the ball just as hard as he always has, but he’s not getting as much loft. But he’s not hitting the ball on the ground either, that rate has stayed the same, as has his line drive rate. It could also be because he’s changed his approach. Harper is pulling the ball more over the years, and pitchers have responded by feeding him more sliders and changeups:
Of the main pitches Harper seeks, the two that have steadily increased over the years are sliders and changeups, by more than 1% each year since 2016. So either pitchers are adjusting to him or he is adjusting to them. Either way, what he’s doing isn’t working as well.
Then there is fWAR, which endeavors to put one number to a player’s overall performance, including defense. Since analytics have become more mainstream, it is impractical to think that they are not used when people (or players/coaches) are voting for all-stars. This is not doing Harper any favors. Right now, the Phillies “slugger” is on pace to pass his 2018 mark of 3.5 fWAR by a small margin, which is decent but not at an all-star level. He’s not the black hole defensively this season that he has been for the last few, which helps, but his overall below all-star performance is starting to catch up with his reputation:
|Harper||fWAR||MLB Average||All-Star Average|
Harper was named an all-star in each of the above years except 2019. He really could have not been one in any. The average WAR is 2.0 for a starting position player and Fangraphs estimates that the average all-star puts up a fWAR of 4.5 in a season. For the most part, Harper resides between both of those categories. I believe this is something that people are starting to realize.
Competition — NL Outfielders
Let’s talk National League outfielders because right now the field is strong. Something that has transcended Harper’s persona beyond his actual on-field contributions is his potential. Other than Mike Trout, who has more potential than Harper? At 22-years-old, he slugged his way to the MVP in 2015, slashing .330/.460/.649 with 42 dingers, 118 runs, 99 RBI, and 124 walks. Four years ago, he was the only outfielder in the NL with that kind of potential. Things have changed since then.
In the NL alone, there are four outfielders Harper’s age or younger who have just as much potential as him—and less complicated track records:
Remember the 2018 NL MVP? The guy who could likely defend his award, because, you know, he is hitting better this year than he did last year? The guy who has played fewer games than Harper in 2019 but has almost doubled his home run total (31) while sporting an OPS of 1.140 and stealing 19 bases. Sure Christian Yelich‘s defense isn’t great either, but who cares when you’ve basically become the NL’s version of Trout?
Is Cody Bellinger having a better year than Yelich? Maybe. You can’t definitively say that he isn’t. The two are deadlocked in every major offensive category. Defensively, however, Bellinger is way ahead. Either way, they are both outplaying Harper’s tremendous MVP season, and both have been better and more consistent around and in between their career years.
Let’s look at Ronald Acuna Jr, who had a higher fWAR than Harper did in 2018 despite playing just 111 games and it being his rookie season. He’s back at it again with a 3.2 fWAR so far this season, slashing .292/.377/.506 with 21 HR and 13 SB—all except OBP are better than Harper. The five-tool player also is getting better defensively and has real staying power. He’s a perennial all-star, and that’s a problem for Harper.
Here’s the thing about Juan Soto, he’s a trainwreck on defense. Not to the level that Harper was in 2018, but he’s not good. Still, this 20-year-old can hit. So far he’s at .300/.406/.943 with 15 dingers. Sure, Harper is edging him out in home runs, but he’s losing big time in everything else. And unlike Harper, Soto is getting better.
I’d be safe in saying that three of these four outfielders could make the all-star team every year for the next five years, which would put Harper at 31 and physically declining. That eliminates about half of the outfield all-star spots. It is possible through injuries that fewer than three make it, of course, it is also possible that all of them run it back next year. The talent is there.
That brings us to the other outfielders who could perennially go instead of Harper: Kris Bryant, David Dahl, Starling Marte, Marcell Ozuna, Michael Conforto, Joc Pederson, Victor Robles and so on. There is obviously the injury argument. It will happen to one or more of these guys, but Harper has had his own long list of injuries (shoulder, neck, hamstring, knee, thumb, concussion)—so long that I wouldn’t expect him to be more durable than any of the names above.
Competition — Philadelphia
Here is where I should explain how all-stars are selected: starters are selected by two rounds of fan voting to narrow down candidates. Then pitchers and reserves are voted on by players and selected by the commissioner’s office. There is also a rule that says each team needs to be represented by at least one player. This is also bad news for Harper.
Despite being paid like he’s the best player on his team, Harper isn’t. It’s unclear who the best player on the Phillies is, but it could be Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, or Aaron Nola. One thing is for sure, all three of them are better than Harper. And then there is Jean Segura, who is also outperforming Harper. This season, he’s being outperformed at least four other Phillies, and you could make a case that Scott Kingery has been better than him as well. Other than Segura, none of those players are near the end of their primes, making it that much harder for him to earn a spot on the National League squad as there are so many other viable options.
Further complicating things is the fact that teams with only one all-star are taking up a spot by putting a player who usually wouldn’t make it. If that player happens to be an outfielder, the chances are very slim that Harper makes it, if we are judging him by his last 3.5 years in the league and not on his reputation as a “star.”
One more thing to add, being in Philadelphia hurts. Not because it’s a bad market, but because Philly doesn’t draw all-star votes for whatever reason. Despite their recent success and optimism, not a single Phillie has placed in the top three for any position (top nine OF) in the last two years of all-star voting. Do you think they are suddenly going to turn out for Harper?
Harper: The Man, The Myth, The Contract
Which brings me to my final section: everything off the field. Being liked helps in making you an all-star. Harper is not liked. Fans have to vote for you, and if they don’t, players have to vote for you. Considering the players have named Harper the most overrated player in the league two years running, I’d say he’s not leading any of their ballots anytime soon.
So that leaves fans. Harper is one of those players who is routinely dirtying his own name. He’s been disrespectful to reporters, umpires, and fellow players. He’s been choked by his own teammate. He’s intentionally defaced the logos of other teams, he’s been benched for not hustling, and then there is that thing he does with his hair. He’s been booed at home during his time with the Nats and already with the Phillies.
And then there are the expectations that come with $330 million. While that number could be one of the reasons Boras thinks his client is a star, it might also work against him. At least for now, Harper’s performance is viewed through the prism of that contract. He’s a failure until he lives up to it, which he might not be able or willing to do—and Phillies fans won’t let him forget it.
I bet when Phillies GM Matt Klentak signed Harper for 13 years, he was dreaming of 10 all-star appearances. It’s plausible that he doesn’t get half of that. It’s possible that he doesn’t get any.
(Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)