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Bryce Harper Is Not Mike Trout. Good Thing The Phillies Don’t Need Him To Be.

Bryce Harper’s first couple of weeks in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform could scarcely have gone better. Harper introduced himself to his new team — and its infamously passionate fan base — with a .333 average, four home runs and a 1.299 on-base plus slugging in his first 10 games of 2019. Along with such pro-Philly acts as donning Phanatic cleats and ringing the bell at a Sixers game, it was a great first impression for Harper to make after inking what is now the second-richest contract in baseball history.

But just like he did last season, Harper has followed up that red-hot start with an ice-cold slump. Since April 10, Harper is hitting .187 with a .632 OPS, including a .617 OPS in the past two weeks and a .477 mark in the past seven days. And despite all of his attempts to endear himself to teammates and fans, he’s already been criticized by Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta for getting himself ejected from a game, and he was booed at Citizens Bank Park last week.

Harper is a streaky player, and he’ll break out of this stretch soon enough. More importantly, the Phillies haven’t suffered too much despite Harper’s issues. The team is still .500 since April 10, it still leads the NL East, and our projections call for it to finish with the NL’s fifth-best record. Harper hasn’t remotely been the Phillies’ best player; he hasn’t even been the team’s best offseason acquisition. According to wins above replacement,1 Philly has gotten far more out of new catcher J.T. Realmuto, left fielder Andrew McCutchen and shortstop Jean Segura than it has out of Harper so far.

Harper was merely one of the Phillies’ top pickups

Among top four offseason pickups for the Philadelphia Phillies, preseason established* and actual wins above replacement in 2019

WAR per 162 games
Pos Player Established Level* Actual
C J.T. Realmuto 4.0
5.8
SS Jean Segura 3.9
3.8
RF Bryce Harper 3.1
3.0
LF Andrew McCutchen 2.4
4.2

* A player’s established level of WAR is based on a weighted average of his WAR the previous three seasons.

Stats as of May 6, 2019.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs.com

That may not last, but it was always going to be much closer to the case than you might expect from the breathless coverage Harper’s free agency received this winter. Harper is not Mike Trout; a few of the fellow newcomers listed above actually had more WAR last season than Harper did. He is a piece of Philly’s potential postseason puzzle — perhaps even the most important one — but he’s just one of multiple talented pieces.

Even so, the Phillies should be encouraged that Harper’s extremely poor defensive metrics — the single biggest drag on his WAR last year — have, predictably, reverted toward his pre-2018 form. According to an average of the fielding values found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, Harper has been an average outfielder in the early going this season, albeit with some disagreement between the two sources.2 The reality is that Harper is probably a below-average defensive outfielder — but nowhere near as bad as some of his 2018 numbers made him out to be.

So once Harper’s hitting numbers start ticking up again — his batted-ball metrics are better than his stats would indicate, and his exit velocity ranks among the top quarter of MLB hitters — he’ll quickly rise up in the Phillies’ WAR pecking order. It’s concerning that Harper’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is his worst since 2014, but FanGraphs still projects him to put up the majors’ sixth-best OPS over the rest of the season. The boos will turn into cheers before long.

Of course, Philly fans expecting Trout-like production from Harper will still inevitably be disappointed (and maybe the free-agency hype did drive expectations in that direction). A more reasonable outlook would have expected Harper to be one of the driving forces behind the Phillies’ improvement — just not the sole one. Given that the rest of the team has played pretty well despite Harper’s up-and-down start, Philadelphia’s postseason aspirations should be stronger than ever when he heats up again.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Averaging together the versions from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  2. Just like last season, Baseball-Reference is lower this year on Harper’s defense than FanGraphs is.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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