History keeps Harper a mystery
One of the hardest and most controversial questions in baseball from the day he signed with the Washington Nationals in 2010 is: How good is Bryce Harper?
After his rookie of the year season at age 19 (22 homers, 98 runs in 2012) helped the Nats win 98 games, he was, logically, compared to other teenage supernovas like Alex Rodriguez and Mel Ott — Hall of Fame stuff.
After two years marred by major injuries at 20 and 21, he was still celebrated by fans but also voted the most overrated player both years in a poll of big leaguers. His .273 average and 32 RBI in 100 games last year were noted to me by more than one Nat, not as a rip, just as “Can we stay sane about this guy?”
Harper is on pace for 53 homers and 127 RBI, has an on-base-plus-slugging-percentage of 1.185 — Babe Ruth holds the career record of 1.164 — and has almost lapped the field in all-star votes.
First, if anybody knows how good Harper will be over the whole course of his career or even just this season, please notify me. It would be a big help. Second, anyone who wishes to say, “Wait five years and we’ll actually know,” can just stifle the impulse because I work for a daily paper. You wait. I’m impatient.
That 1.185 is so outrageous — only two players are within 150
points of him — that it’s like finding the fossil of a T-Rex toe. Why not guess what this whole thing looks like?
What Harper has done this year, even if only in 292 plate appearances, changes the way we look at his future. Now we have a new and far higher measure of what he looks like at his hottest and for how long he can stay that way.
In part, a high batting average on balls in play (.364) has helped his OPS by a few dozen points. But not by hundreds. Even if Harper goes cold immediately, and he may, his ceiling has radically risen. Why? Keep it simple. Mike Trout’s best OPS season is .988 — 197 points below Bryce.
For a sense of how incredibly well Harper has hit and also how unrealistic it probably is to think he can continue it all year, consider how spectacular a 1.185 OPS season actually is.
Of the 20 players in history with the highest career OPS, Babe Ruth topped Harper’s current 1.185 seven times in a full season and Barry Bonds did it four times, all in his tainted late-career period. How many others did it?
Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby and Mark McGwire (with an asterisk) each did it twice. Jimmie Foxx and Frank Thomas once. That’s it.
Here are some of the top 20 OPS players who never got to 1.185, even for one year: Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Miguel Cabrera.
Current stars Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton have wonderful career OPS marks of .948, .934 and .909, respectively, but have not had a 1.000 season yet, though Goldschmidt is well on his way this year.
As we gape at 1.185, while it lasts, how do we revise our view of Harper? First, let’s think ugly thoughts. Assume Harper’s career to date is totally predictive of his future: He will keep having serious injuries — one every two years — and his production this year is just an aberration that arrives once every few years.
Sowhat have we got? A 22year-old with an OPS of .874 in his first 426 games. That would rank 104th in MLB history, ahead of many Hall of Famers. And his OPS+ — that’s OPS adjusted for the era in which you play and your home park — is 137. That would tie for 92nd.
If that’s Harper’s final address, it’s a nice neighborhood, next door to Reggie Jackson, David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado, Gary Sheffield and Duke Snider.
But after what we’ve seen this season, don’t we have to look higher?
“If he keeps the approach that he has now — taking pitches, not afraid to get his walks — the results aren’t going to be a whole lot different. Bryce has matured. We’re seeing advanced stuff now,” Nationals closer Drew Storen said this week. “When he’s ahead in the count, he’ll take his shots [for power]. But when he’s not, he has unbelievable power to left field with backspin that makes the ball carry. He’s not susceptible to any specific pitch or location. They’ve tried everything. As long as he stays healthy, it’s pretty absurd.”
Nobody knows how much of his current pace is sustainable. However, one simple approach appeals to me to make an estimate of Harper’s future. Last season, Harper was about as injured — and hampered when he returned — as he’s likely to be in any season. He played 100 games. This season, he may be as hot as he can possibly get and for about as long a period of time as he can maintain.
So combine the close-to-worst case of 2014 with the close-to-best case of 2015. And remember, he had a lot more plate appearances in his “off ” season (395) than he has this year (292).
His two-year slash line would be: .300 batting average, .396 on-base percentage and .542 slugging percentage. And a .938 OPS.
Where would that rank in OPS history? If you adjust for era, then Harper’s OPS+ would be 158 — or 58 percent better than the league norm during his time. And that would be tied for 16th in history.
Gulp, that’s right. He would be close behind Albert Pujols, Musial and Trout and just ahead of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Cabrera.
Just the .938, not adjusted for anything, would be 32nd best ever.
Your first instinct (like mine) is to say, “Tar and feather anybody who compares a 22year-old with Musial, Mays and Aaron.” So let me put it another way. After what you’ve seen so far, including this season, do you think it is absurd to compare Harper to Goldschmidt, the Arizona first baseman who has played five years and won the NL home run and RBI titles in 2013?
Goldschmidt’s career slash line is .300/.394/.540 — almost identical to Harper’s combined line from 2014-15. And when he was 22, Goldschmidt had never played a big league game.
We’re left with wonderful questions, the kind that drag us to the park to see the answers for ourselves. Is Harper headed up toward the general altitude where Trout, Goldschmidt and Stanton have been for several years?
Or is his career mark of .874 revealing a truth we will have to accept?
Or, last but far from least, is much of that hard-to-believe 1.185 — can’t get him out, can’t keep him off base, can’t even keep him in the yard — the real “tell” on the direction of an incredibly bright future?
Nobody knows. But just in case, better wear shades. For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.