To the surprise of no one except maybe Paul Goldschmidt’s friends and family, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals was named National League MVP on Thursday. Many picked Harper’s Nationals to win the World Series before the season, but they finished as one of the most disappointing teams in recent memory. That wasn’t Harper’s fault, though. He led the majors in wins above replacement (WAR), no matter which version of the metric you look at.
Harper deserves the title of “most valuable” if we’re talking on-field performance — his was a fantastic season that probably ranks among the top 50 to 100 in MLB history. But his 2015 campaign also merits that designation if we look at how good he was relative to his salary. By that definition, Harper’s might have even been the most valuable season a baseball player has ever had.
FanGraphs has a way of converting a player’s WAR into his monetary value on the open (free agent) market. The site calculates how much teams spend per projected WAR in a given season1 and then applies that “market price” to each player’s output at the end of the season. That gives us a sense of how much it would cost to buy the WAR he created. FanGraphs isn’t the only one to perform this calculation — so we’re dealing with a bit of estimation here — but if you take a consensus average, teams were willing to pay about $7.7 million for every additional WAR this season. That means Harper’s 9.7 wins above replacement2 would have been valued at a staggering $75.4 million on the open market.
That $75.4 million figure is the most that any player’s MLB season has been worth since 2002, the first season for which FanGraphs lists dollar-value estimates.3 And because salaries have grown so dramatically over the past 13 years — Barry Bonds’s outrageously great 12.2 WAR was worth “just” $46 million in 2002 — it’s safe to say that Harper’s 2015 output was also worth the most money of any player’s in baseball history.
Of course, a player’s value is not purely about the market value of his performance. Chris Davis and Mookie Betts each produced about 5.4 WAR this season, production valued at $42 million, but Davis was paid $12 million for it; by contrast, Betts was paid $514,500, making him a far better value. And if we look at the surplus value of a player’s WAR beyond what his club paid him, Harper once again had the “most valuable” season of any MLB player since 2002:
|Josh Donaldson||Blue Jays||2015||8.8||68.0||4.3||63.7|
|Jacoby Ellsbury||Red Sox||2011||8.8||64.9||2.4||62.5|
|Dustin Pedroia||Red Sox||2011||7.9||58.4||5.8||52.6|
|Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||2011||8.1||60.0||8.0||52.0|
Obviously, this high rank is a function of both Harper’s great season and the ever-escalating market value of major league players. Also, Harper ranks as such a bargain because he’s the victim of a salary structure designed to pay young players nowhere near what they’re worth.4 So being “valuable” in this sense is a pretty bad thing from a player’s perspective.
But from a team’s viewpoint, it’s a bonanza to have a player generate nearly $73 million of excess productivity. And until baseball salaries rise even more in future seasons, giving some other young player the chance to create even more surplus value, Harper can say he was the most valuable MVP in history, in all kinds of ways.