It's Put Up or Shut Up Time for Bryce Harper
This past Friday was the deadline for avoiding arbitration in Major League Baseball. Many teams signed contracts with significant players to avoid the grueling process of salary arbitration. A few significant names received one year deals, including Bryce Harper for the Washington Nationals.
Harper, a potential member of the much-hyped about 2018 free agent class, is coming off a let down of a season to his standards. His 2015 was one of the best individual performances of our generation, slashing a mind-boggling .330/.460/.649, finishing with an OPS of 1.109, which ranks 79th among single seasons of all time. If you stop and think about that, there have been only 78 individual seasons that were better than that...ever.
However, his 2016 took a huge dip. His slash line dropped to a more human stat-line of .243/.373/.441, his home run total dropped from 42 to 24, and pretty much every other number dropped as well. This didn’t look good for a player who is thought to break the $500 million threshold when he hits the open market.
Harper will get paid $13.625 million this year, but we can compare him to someone who got paid slightly less in an arbitration-eligible year, and another member of this potentially historic free agent class of 2018, Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles.
The former AL Platinum Glover is the same age as Harper and coming off another fine season, slashing .294/.343/.533, with 37 home runs, 40 doubles, and nearly 200 hits overall. Every season, he’s improved in some way, be it his hitting, fielding, or attitude. He also plays a much tougher position, being a shortstop/third baseman, than Harper, who’s mainly a right fielder.
Harper, while still putting up a very high OBP in 2016, has had a significant drop off from last year, causing some people to question whether 2015 was just an aberration. What do you think?
One might attribute Harper’s drop-off to being pitched around more often. He was intentionally walked 20 times this season, which led the majors by 5. One might think that it was impossible to keep up those crazy numbers from 2015, and the pressure got to him. I think that anyone who feels that way is out of their mind.
Could Harper’s numbers have been better last season? Sure. He had fewer hits per game than any of his previous seasons. His home run total almost halved between 2015 and 2016. But there are some reasons to think his 2016 was a blip on the radar, not 2015.
His power numbers may have gone down, but his patience at the plate isn’t gone. He walked 108 times last year, while only striking out 117 times, which tells us his eye is very sharp. He stole 21 bases last year, a career high. He spent a good chunk of the year struggling with a shoulder issue, which can sap power and cause a hitter to lose comfort at the dish, which causes them to change their approach and adjust to something they aren't used to.
He also just turned 24 in November, a year most young studs finally put everything together (Gary Sanchez of the Yankees is one month younger than Harper, and popped almost as many home runs in a third of the plate appearances). To think that his best season is behind him is almost unfathomable.
That said, Harper has to prove his worth this season. It’s not technically a contract season, but the fact that he’s has yet to sign a multi-year deal and his agent is one Scott Boras, baseball super agent and contract extension hater, almost guarantees that he’s hitting the open market come winter of 2018. But I find it hard to believe that a team would shell out $500 million to someone who isn’t consistently hitting .300, with 40 homers, and playing gold glove defense.
Having a .200 drop in slugging can’t help your chances. But with Harper, we’ve seen what is possible. What we still need to determine though is who the real Bryce Harper is, before a team is going to sign their future away to him.