Is Bryce Harper Overrated or Underrated?

Analyzing Major League Baseball's most polarizing player.

It seems that most sports fans, and in particular baseball fans, have a very strong opinion one way or the other about FOX national sportscaster Joe Buck. The son of legendary broadcaster Jack Buck, Joe Buck joined FOX at the age of 25 as a bit of a sportscasting prodigy and has been calling MLB and NFL games ever since.

Full disclosure: I am a Joe Buck fan. I think he’s sensational at his job and is the soundtrack of some of the most memorable sporting events of my lifetime. Take for instance this past October when in a matter of days Buck seamlessly transitioned between calling an NLCS game (Dodgers-Braves), an NFL Sunday “Game of the Week” (Packers-Buccaneers), a rescheduled Monday afternoon NFL game (Chiefs-Bills), and a World Series game (Rays-Dodgers). I tip my cap to Joe Buck, who makes an incredibly difficult job (my dream job) seem extremely smooth and easy.

Love him or hate him, most sports fans seem to have strong feelings about Buck. There is the silly long-time narrative that sports fan bases always believe that national sportscasters hate their teams. News flash: they don’t. There seemed to initially be some excitement about Buck’s presence in the booth in the early years.

Then, for whatever reason, it seemed like everyone turned on him for a while where he was frequently met with loads of criticism and tons of Twitter jokes at his expense. In the past few years, however, it feels like everyone has (rightfully so) come back around on Buck to some extent and even if you aren’t his biggest fan, there is no denying that he’s great at what he does.

FOX pays him upwards of $6 million/year to be their lead play-by-play announcer. Networks simply don’t hand over that type of contract to someone who is bad at their job.

All of this brings me to the Phillies’ 28-year-old superstar right-fielder Bryce Harper.

Full disclosure again: I am a Bryce Harper fan (not his biggest fan by any stretch, but I root for him to be successful – I think he is good for the game). Harper’s backstory and pedigree are well-chronicled, so we won’t get into all that here too much today.

Here’s an ultra-quick recap of just a few highlights for the former catcher-turned-outfielder who was one of the most hyped and highly-regarded baseball prospects ever:

  • Featured on a Sports Illustrated cover in 2009 as a high schooler at the age of 16 in which he was deemed “Baseball’s LeBron”
  • Drafted with the #1 overall draft pick by the Washington Nationals in 2010 out of Southern Nevada
  • Blew a kiss to a pitcher in the minor leagues after hitting a home run
  • Made his MLB debut at age 19 against the Dodgers on April 28, 2012
  • Became the youngest National League player ever to make the All-Star team
  • Won 2012 NL Rookie of the Year
  • Was benched by his manager in Washington for not running out a groundball
  • Voted “Most Overrated Player” in 2014 and 2015 in an ESPN The Magazine poll by his fellow players
  • Responded to that poll by being named NL MVP in 2015
  • Got into a physical dugout choking altercation with teammate Jonathan Papelbon in 2015
  • 2017 National League All-Star game’s top overall vote-getter as voted by the fans
  • Voted “Most Overrated Player” by his peers again in 2018-2019 via The Athletic 

Whether it was Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels unceremoniously beaning Harper intentionally in his rookie season as his “welcome to the big leagues” moment (after which Harper would steal home), the feud with Giants reliever Hunter Strickland, the long flowing hair, the way Harper regularly throws off his own helmet when running the bases, the emotional way that he plays the game, or even simple petty jealously at all the hype he received at such a young age, the baseball community outside of the Nation’s Capital at large seemed to turn against Harper rather quickly. He became somewhat of a baseball villain nationally and widely disliked by other players and fan bases around the league.

Similar to the career path of Joe Buck, there was an unprecedented amount of hype in the early years, followed by years of public backlash, which in Buck’s case eventually came full circle into a certain level of gratitude and appreciation.

I wonder if Harper’s career path might come full circle as well. Which prompts me to ask the question: is Bryce Harper still overrated or has he possibly become underrated?

 

The Overrated Crowd

 

Let’s get this one out of the way right from the top. The Washington Nationals let Bryce Harper walk as a free agent during the 2019 offseason, watching as he signed with their division rival Philadephia Phillies for a rather unheard of 13-year contract worth approximately $330 million dollars (~$25 million/year).

By letting him go as a free agent, the Nationals essentially received nothing in return (other than a compensation pick in the draft) for one of the premier players in baseball. Then, they went on to win the World Series.

So how valuable and essential can a player possibly be if the team arguably got better without him? Or is it really Harper’s fault that the Nationals survived a dramatic Wild Card game against the Brewers before making an improbable championship run powered by their terrific pitching staff and their own emerging superstar in Juan Soto?

As mentioned above, Harper was not only twice voted by his fellow players as ESPN The Magazine’s “Most Overrated Player” in the sport in 2014-2015 but then again in 2018-2019 via The Athletic as well.

That’s truly bizarre and really shows an underlying level of resentment and/or dislike for the player on a personal basis because his numbers don’t warrant that level of negative backlash. As one anonymous player was quoted in the 2019 poll from The Athletic, “It’s marketing, It’s star power. But what has he done besides have one year?”

Harper makes for a fascinating case study in the present-day tug-of-war between old-school baseball fans who prefer traditional baseball statistics versus the new-school fans who embrace analytics and advanced metrics.

Not counting the abbreviated 60-game 2020 season, a glance at the first eight seasons of Harper’s career reveals numerous areas where critics can point to make their overrated argument when primarily looking at traditional baseball stats.

Bryce Harper Career Stats 2012 – 2020

Harper had a bit of an injury-prone label in the early years, failing to play in more than 153 games until doing so in back-to-back seasons in 2018-2019, finally shedding that stigma to some extent.

Then others might point to the fact that he has only eclipsed the 100-run or 100-RBI milestones just twice when most superstars are expected to cross those plateaus nearly every season. And the sub-.250 batting average seasons in 2016 and 2018 stand out as well. He has also never won a Gold Glove award in the outfield either.

But the counterargument would point to the three different 30+ HR seasons, the 232 career HR, and the career .276/.387/.513 slash line accompanied by a .900 OPS and 138 OPS+ (an average major-leaguer by definition of the statistic has a 100 OPS+) as reasons that the veteran outfielder is not overrated. There’s also that eye-popping 2015 MVP season as well.

And then, there’s Mike Trout. Through no fault of his own, Bryce Harper will forever be linked to Mike Trout because they were regarded as baseball’s two best prospects at the same time and burst onto the scene together in 2012.

They were hailed as baseball’s next great superstars. And since breaking into the league, Trout has put together as good of a ten-year stretch as any player in the history of baseball, highlighted by 3 MVP awards, 4 MVP runner-ups, 8 All-Star selections, and 8 Silver Slugger awards.

Trout would also sign the richest contract in the history of professional sports, a record 12-year, $426.5 million contract extension with the Angels (which would be surpassed by Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes a short time later).

Trout vaulted himself into the “Greatest Player Ever” conversation, while Harper has simply been great as opposed to “All-Time great”. Trout’s accomplishments have made it easy for some to discount Harper’s because no matter how good he has been, he hasn’t been Mike Trout.

 

The Underrated Crowd

 

Six-time MLB All-Star. Former NL MVP. Signed one of the richest contracts in MLB history himself as a highly-sought-after free agent during the 2019 offseason.

Again, like FOX and Joe Buck, baseball executives and front offices generally aren’t in the business of giving out $300+ million contracts to bad baseball players. Regardless of how you feel about him, Bryce Harper is one of the best baseball players on the planet. And there’s a very good chance that Harper has been even better than you think, especially during 2020. Below is his Statcast profile via Baseball Savant of this past season.

Small sample size caveat notwithstanding, during the 58 games he played this past season, Harper ranked amongst baseball’s elite in nearly all of the major Statcast categories.

Exit velocity? Check.

xBA? Check.

Hard-Hit %? Check.

xSLG? 99th percentile.

xwOBA? 99th percentile.

Barrel %? Check.

He was quietly incredible during the abbreviated season. His 2020 numbers over a 162-game pace: 111 R, 35 HR, 89 RBI, 22 SB. 

That’ll play. Those are MVP numbers. As well as first-round fantasy numbers.

But let’s dig back even a little bit further. Let’s take a look at Harper’s Statcast profile from Baseball Savant from 2015 (when Statcast began tracking this data) all the way through 2020. If you take nothing else with you today after reading this article, I want the following chart to be imprinted in your memory whenever you hear Harper’s name in the future, because it’s truly jaw-dropping.

There’s more red on this chart than there was at the Red Wedding (and for those not well-versed in Statcast profiles, red in this case is a very good thing – indicating that a player finished in the top 10% of the entire league in that category, and often times even better than that).

Harper is a modern-day Statcast superhero for the contingent of baseball fans who embrace advanced statistics. The “X-Man”? Nah, pretty sure that’s already taken. Maybe the “Wobanator” or “X-Wobanator”? I’ll have to workshop that. Someone far more catchy and creative than I am can surely do better. I’ll hold off on printing the t-shirts just yet.

His exit velocity, xSLG, wOBA, wxOBA, and wxOBAcon perenially rank tops in all of baseball year-after-year. Overrated players don’t do that. He is an elite hitter of baseballs.

And it’s worth pointing out that Harper made some strategic adjustments in 2020, posting a career-best launch angle, as well as barrel % and exit velocity, showing the potential to unlock even more production and improvement. He even hit better against lefties (.281/.423/.544) than righties (.263/.419/.541) this past season which is incredibly encouraging.

There is a lot to like about his 2020 performance. Harper has proven in the past that he is capable of being the very best player in the sport over an entire season – there is no doubt in my mind that he can do it again.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the marvelous walk percentage, as that is something Harper does as well as anyone in baseball. Plus it gives me an excuse to insert a gratuitous Moneyball GIF.

 

The Verdict 

 

Fun fact: Bryce Harper, somewhat surprisingly, ranked #3 overall in 2020 in MLB Jersey Sales in his second season in Philadephia, behind only the Dodgers Mookie Betts and Yankees Aaron Judge (although these sales are typically very regional in nature).

However, on the flip side, being named the “Most Overrated Player” in the sport four different times by your peers is quite alarming. But was it justified? I personally don’t believe it was.

From a fantasy baseball perspective, his current 2021 ADP suggests he is a mid-second-round pick as the #16 overall player via FantasyPros, and he is the #7 outfielder coming off the board, behind Ronald Acuña, Jr., Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Juan Soto, Christian Yelich, and Cody Bellinger.

While we could certainly nitpick that a bit, that feels about right to me. Although the argument could certainly be made that Harper should be taken ahead of Yelich and/or Bellinger given their struggles this past season, as well as the strides that Harper himself made in 2020. I myself would take Harper ahead of Bellinger and Yelich and view him as more of a late first-round pick, but again, I admit we’re splitting hairs here.

Steamer/Razzball projections for 2021 have Bryce Harper at .256/.390/.512 with 111.3 R, 36.9 HR, 93.5 RBI, and 13.8 SB. That’s pretty darn good.

Harper’s ability to always get on base, his prime spot in the batting order in a productive lineup, his favorable home ballpark and his recent stretch of durability (10 total missed games in the past three years combined) give him an incredibly high floor in fantasy leagues.

He’s even dusted off the running cleats and showed a willingness and ability to steal 10-20 bases in the past few seasons as well. He’s an extremely safe pick in the second round. And he showed in 2020 that if things break right in 2021, with some of the adjustments he has made to his swing, he could absolutely jump back into the Top 10 if not the Top 5 overall.

Regardless, Harper has no doubt cemented his status amongst the game’s upper echelon of players despite all the negative fanfare and public backlash over the years.

It would certainly be difficult to argue that Harper is underrated from a fantasy baseball perspective, given the ADP data mentioned above, although I personally do still see some value there. I lean underrated myself.

However, from a more general nationwide perspective though, I think the overall baseball community at large and the casual baseball fan have certainly taken him for granted in recent years and dismissed him a bit too often.

To answer the question – is he overrated? There simply isn’t much data to support that claim, as a review of his career Statcast profile and his remarkable 2020 campaign suggest that’s a clown question, bro.

Photo by Ian D’Andrea/Wikimedia Commons/Flickr | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Lucas Spence

Writer for Pitcher List and contributor for FantasyPros and InStreetClothes. Certified Physician Assistant trained in Emergency Medicine + Urgent Care services. Proud husband and father of three. Follow him on Twitter @lspence24. "No amount of money ever bought a second of time." - Tony/Howard Stark

  • Mike Pugliese says:

    I love this article and I love Bryce Harper. I am a Nats fan and I watched games just to see him play. He was (maybe still is) my Joe DiMaggio. My fathers favorite player was Joe D and I put everything behind Bryce. I was looking forward to watching him for the next 20+ years when he signed with Washington. I bought season tickets to the Hagerstown Suns so I could take my kids to watch him. I was fanatical and looked forward to each game to watch him.

    When he left it crushed me. Still hurts today.

    I wish he would hit for a higher average. He has hit 330 and 319, he can do it. Has to get past all these years of 250. He is better than that.

    Anyway, thanks for the article. He is underrated and I hope when his career ends he goes down as one of best of his generation if not all time. Trout certainly will (if not best ever) and want Bryce to at least mentioned as an all time great.

  • Josh says:

    Harper is so polarizing because as a persona, the hair, the flash&flair, The “It” Factor he sells tickets and puts butts in seats and people’s attention to the TV. However as a performer hes a career .900 ops, 138 ops+ 387obp hitter, all are HOF worthy should he continue to do it another 5-6years. But after he had his Ruthian MVP season 1100+ OPS and you know his potential to be the best offensive player in the game yet hes only done it that once. So hes not in the same class a player as a Trout or Betts orManny or Tatis. Not only are they players that can post up 950 ops+ but also gold glove, platinum glove defenders which Harper isnt.

  • Robert Jacobs says:

    There’s a reason Papelbon choked him out in the dugout a few year’s ago. He’s highly talented, but what a cancer in the clubhouse.

  • Stephen Ross says:

    in his first game, against the dodgers, he hit a comebacker to jack billingsley, and sprinted thru first base … as someone who was quite excited to see him in m.l.b., that sprint endeared him to me … later in that game he hit a line drive off the base of the center field wall, and i was hooked … he’s got too big a swing, but that’s him , i guess … he’s got a good arm, ungodly power, beautiful swing (when he connects), and he hustles … he’s gotta hit for higher avg, and strike out less, but i’m rooting for him to b THE player i hoped he would b … that said, mickey trout is “the man”, and knocks my sox off — he’s also classy, low-key, and a great baseball rep

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