I would like for Bryce Harper to sign with the Cardinals. I would. But I find it difficult to complain that the Cards didn’t get him until after I see the deal he signs. It’s hard to parse out what rumors are true and what rumors are Scott Boras trying to raise his price. I’ve seen the Phillies unwilling to pay over $300 million. I’ve seen reports that Harper’s favorite destinations are Los Angeles, Chicago, and St. Louis. I’ve heard that Harper is mad at Boras. I’ve heard that many teams are offering him over $300 million, I’ve also seen reports that only the Phillies really seem to be the team who is offering anything close to that.
You’ll notice some of these are contradicting rumors. Some are presumably made up, or at least gotten from a source who assumes things they do not know. Some are spoonfed to reporters by Boras. It’s really impossible to know until the day I see Ken Rosenthal tweet that Bryce Harper signed with Team X. So I’m not going to judge until I see the deal.
You’ll also notice, if you are at all aware of the existence of projections, that Harper has a better projection from both Steamer and ZiPS than any of his past three seasons. Having a 9 WAR season at 22 will do that. There have been 58 seasons where a player has posted a 9+ fWAR year or greater since 1961. There are quite a few repeat appearances, as you’d probably expect. For instance, Barry Bonds (8), Alex Rodriguez (6), Mike Trout (5), and Willie Mays (4) are nearly 40 percent of those seasons. It’s safe to say Harper does not really belong to that group, at least not yet.
If you narrow the group down to 25-years-old or younger, the list is obviously shorter. Trout makes 4 appearances, there’s two A-Rod appearances, one Barry Bonds and the list never gets weaker. Albert Pujols, Cal Ripken, Adrian Beltre, Mike Schmidt, and Johnny Bench are on the list. Harper and Mookie Betts last year complete the list. Look at those names. Then you begin to understand why a guy with just one really great season is looking at the contract he is.
Though not really a comparable player in any other way, one name of that group does jump out at me: Adrian Beltre. Beltre had an absurdly strong end to his career, but for a while there, he was the guy who had that one randomly incredible season. Even taking into account the end of his career, he never really came close to that season. But he really didn’t come close until he turned 31. He was always an above average player, but he averaged 3.2 fWAR per year in the five years after that season, with his high being 4.6 fWAR. Beltre had his season at 25, Harper at 22. Harper has averaged 3.8 fWAR after his 9 fWAR season, so that comparison still can’t help but make Harper look better. Let me repeat: not counting Betts, whose future we do not know, the worst case scenario of this group is Adrian freaking Beltre.
Now that I’ve presented a pretty strong case for Harper, I’ll give the opposing viewpoint. So as I said above, his projections outpace what he’s done for the past three years and in fact his career as well. There is a Hardball Times post on aging from 2009, written by Michael Lichtman that showed hitters improve from 21 to 26, plateau at 27, and gradually start declining afterwards. Beyond the Box Score in 2015 concluded that young phenoms, of which Harper is one, age a bit more gracefully than your average ballplayers, but the sample size is only 30. Unlike everyone else, who begin to decline at age 27, phenoms begin to decline at 29. Thus, Harper gets the same WAR “projection” for age 26, 27, and 28, and then I will decline starting then.
For the purposes of posting a counterargument, I’m going to assume Harper is not in fact the hitter the projections say he is, but in fact the hitter his career numbers say he is. This does not seem like that outrageous of a position to me. Both Steamer and ZiPS say he will have a 148 wRC+. His career though is “only” 140. So let’s make him a 140 wRC+ hitter.
Even when being pessimistic, I cannot bring myself to take his -15 UZR/150 at RF at face value. Harper is a -0.6 UZR/150 fielder in RF in 4,857 innings. Weighting his recent years more heavily, I have him as a... -0.5 fielder. Baserunning-wise, he has been a +11 baserunner over his career, but has been about average the past two seasons. I checked Statcast sprint speed, and he’s ranged from 27.2 feet per second to 27.7, which has ranked from 185 to 270. Last year was 27.5 and his slowest season, 27.2, was in 2016 when he was a positive baserunner. I don’t really see a compelling reason to assume his last two years are more indicative than his career numbers, so he will get a +1.6 bump in BSR. Basically, his 2019 will be exactly his career numbers. Could have saved myself a lot of time if I just did that in the first place.
Harper has also been injured more than you’d expect (though not enough to be called injury-prone) and players don’t usually get healthier the older they get. He has come to the plate 4,041 times, including the 84 times he batted in the minors when he was kept down because of Super Two in 2012, which over 7 years, comes to an average of 577 PAs. So 140 wRC+, -0.5 UZR/150, +1.6 BSR, 577 PAs is his projection. So here’s his outlook for the next ten years:
2019: 4.3 WAR
2020: 4.3 WAR
2021: 4.3 WAR
2022: 4 WAR
2023: 3.6 WAR
2024: 3.1 WAR
2025: 2.6 WAR
2026: 2.1 WAR
2027: 1.6 WAR
2028: 1.1 WAR
Using the $9 million per WAR, that is a value of $279 million. If the reports are true, he wants more than that. Factor in the also rumored opt-out, which I know everyone thinks only benefits the team but they do not, and you can fairly easily see a justification for not signing him to a $300 million deal. Also, for whatever it’s worth, teams may have some reason to believe he is now worse than an average defender. We, the fans, have nothing, but I’m sure the internal defensive metrics are more reliable than what we have.
What’s the lesson here? Well, you could talk yourself into Harper or out of him pretty easily. I suspect people will take whatever position they already hold and choose to pick out the point I made that supports said position and brush off the other side of the argument. Human nature and all. Myself? I would like to sign him, as I said, and given its not my money, I probably would be elated no matter the price. But there is a price where I am mad we didn’t jump in and a price where I am okay with not jumping in. I’ll need to see the contract first, but I’m personally hoping it’s past the “puke point” so that I’m not mad the Cardinals were never serious contenders for him.