If you do a Google search for “Is Bryce Harper overrated?” you’ll find plenty of evidence to support the claim that he is. Similarly, if you search, “Is Bryce Harper underrated?” you may find just as much evidence. The up-and-down career of the polarizing Phillies right fielder has provided plenty of fodder for all opinions.
But no matter what you believe about Harper, he seems to have recaptured the magic of his previous peaks. The former MVP is playing like one again, leading the National League in weighted runs created plus (173) and second in wins above replacement (6.6), according to FanGraphs. The NL MVP race has been wide open for much of the season, with Harper and San Diego’s Fernando Tatís Jr. the front-runners, though a hard-charging Juan Soto has entered the fray as well. In the final week of the 2021 season, Harper has one more chance to make his case to voters — who may want to look back at how he got here.
Harper, of course, was a phenom from the get-go, hitting 502-foot home runs and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16; making his MLB debut at 19 for the Washington Nationals; and winning Rookie of the Year in 2012. But it wasn’t until 2015 when he realized his superstar promise, hitting to an all-time-great batting line of .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and a 197 wRC+.1 At the age of just 22, Harper had one of the best individual seasons in baseball history, accumulating a full two more wins than the next-best position player in the National League. And as a result, he received every first-place vote for the NL MVP award.
Unfortunately for Harper, he became a victim of his own success. With expectations the highest they had ever been, his 2016 — while still good by the standard of most players — was seen as largely disappointing; and his 111 wRC+ was the worst of his short career to that point and paled in comparison to the year before.
Coincidentally, 2015 was also the inaugural year of Statcast, which measures (among many other things) a hitter’s quality of contact with metrics such as launch angle, exit velocity, hard hit rate, barrel rate and expected weighted on-base. Combined with more widely available metrics such as strikeout rate, walk rate, batting average on balls in play and the ratio of home runs to fly balls, we see that while Harper may have overperformed in some aspects in 2015, he may have underperformed just as much in 2016.
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As great as Harper’s MVP season was, the main critique was that he was getting extremely lucky on balls in play and fly balls. The gap between Harper’s slugging and expected slugging is perhaps the most important part of the story. While his .649 slugging percentage led baseball, his .551 xSLG was ninth, and that 98-point difference was the sixth-highest in baseball. Compare that to 2015’s American League MVP winner Josh Donaldson, whose .543 xSLG was much more in line with his .568 actual slugging percentage. And in the following year, many of Harper’s lofty numbers regressed in a big way: His BABIP fell by 105 points, and his HR/FB% dropped by nearly half.
In the years since, Harper’s production has been comfortably better than his 2016 season, with wRC+ marks no lower than 124 each year, but also well below 2015. Nevertheless, he signed what stands as the largest free agent contract in MLB history, a mind-blowing 13-year, $330 million deal with Philadelphia before the 2019 season. Harper was still only 26 years old, and the Phillies were betting that there was plenty of top-notch baseball left for him.
That bet is looking pretty good right now. For the first time since his MVP campaign — six seasons later and three seasons into his mega deal — Harper is playing like the best player in baseball and doing everything he can to get the Phillies into the postseason. His .435 wOBA and 173 wRC+ are a few ticks below where they were in 2015, but his .433 xwOBA and .607 xSLG are a good bit higher than that year, and much closer to his actual numbers, signalling that this year is no mirage. Many of his other underlying metrics are either on par with or slightly better than in 2015.
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Those who have claimed that Harper is overrated may point to 2015 as an outlier. Those who claim he is underrated may want to hold up 2015 as the true Harper. Whatever else it says, his performance this season at least proves that he can repeat that success, and that he can do it without overperforming his raw metrics.
So is Harper’s performance enough to win him another MVP? Among the front-runners, he’s the only one playing for a team with at least a small shot still at the postseason, at 7 percent after Monday’s games. For those who give more weight to the player’s individual performance, Harper has as strong a case as any for one of the game’s highest honors. Another award would cap off the latest peak of Harper’s roller-coaster career.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.