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Is It A Clown Question To Ask Why Bryce Harper’s Stats Are Down?

When Bryce Harper was introduced by the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday in Clearwater, Florida, and slipped on a red pinstriped No. 3 jersey, the amount of fanfare that greeted him hadn’t been seen since the team traded for Roy Halladay in 2009. The club reportedly sold 100,000 tickets to regular-season games within hours of Harper’s signing. The Phillies hope it ushers in an era of sustained competitive baseball with Harper as a $330 million keystone. After all, what made Harper so promising was not only his talent but also his relative youth, as a 26-year-old free agent.

Harper should still be productive in the near term and deliver important wins for the Phillies (after the signing, FiveThirtyEight’s projections for the 2019 season bumped the Phillies up to 84 wins, from 82, although other sites have been more bullish). But as we wrote last week, Harper’s consistency is a concern. Historical comps for a player with Harper’s unusual and volatile career to date suggest that he might have already peaked and that star-level players, in general, have reached their peaks by age 26. Since we are already in the habit of raining on the parade in Philadelphia, let’s look under the hood at Harper’s underlying stats and see where the specific problems may reside.

For starters, Harper’s defensive metrics fell off a cliff last season.

According to an average of Defensive Runs Saved (which Baseball-Reference.com uses for its defensive WAR) and Ultimate Zone Rating (FanGraphs’s metric of choice), Harper was the second-worst right fielder in the game (-12 runs saved compared with average) and the fourth-worst center fielder (-9 runs saved). Harper played 860 innings in right and 477 innings in center last season. And if Harper becomes more and more a one-dimensional player, in an era in which his power hitting stands out less, he loses relative value.

But perhaps those concerns are a little overblown. Although baseball’s defensive metrics are getting better all the time, they are still prone to big swings between seasons. In 2017, before the big decline last season, Harper was actually 3 runs better than an average right fielder. His 24-run drop ranks second-worst among outfielders under age 271 who played the same position for the same team in back-to-back years between 20022 and 2018, trailing only Matt Kemp (who fell from being exactly average in 2009 to 31 runs below average in 2010). In the season after that, Kemp still wasn’t good — he was -6 relative to an average CF — but he at least reclaimed some of the ground he’d lost in his annus horribilis.

As it turns out, that’s a pretty common story if we look at the rest of the outfielders who met our qualifications from above and dropped off by at least 15 runs in a season since 2002:

The fates of outfielders with Harper-esque defensive drops

Players who had a decline of at least 15 defensive runs* relative to average in a season since 2002, were younger than 27 and played in the same position for the same team

Fielding Runs vs. Avg
Historical players Years Ages Pos Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Matt Kemp 2009-11 24-26 CF 0 -31 -6
Jeff Francoeur 2007-09 23-25 RF +20 -3 +4
Nick Markakis 2008-10 24-26 RF +17 -5 -8
Mike Trout 2012-14 20-22 CF +15 -5 -9
Jay Bruce 2010-12 23-25 RF +18 0 -3
Luis Matos 2003-05 24-26 CF +9 -8 -2
Andre Ethier 2007-09 25-27 RF +4 -11 -11
Fielding Runs vs. Avg
current players Years Ages Pos Year 1 Year 2 Year 3
Bryce Harper 2017-19 24-26 RF +3 -20 ?
Odubel Herrera 2017-19 25-27 CF +6 -11 ?

* According to an average of the defensive metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Minimum 700 innings in all years. Ages are as of June 30 of the season in question.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraph

There were some other players who experienced the same kinds of defensive declines and responded by changing positions entirely. (Such as Mark Teahen, Adam Eaton and Marlon Byrd.) But among those who stayed at the same position, they averaged to be about half as bad (relative to average) in the following season as they’d been in the decline year, regaining about 20 percent of their previous form.

In the end, though, the Phillies are paying Harper to produce runs and hit homers. So perhaps the more troubling trend of Harper’s for the Phillies is his failure to address holes in his swing.

Harper’s ability to make contact has been in decline. Last season, his rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone was the fourth-lowest among qualified hitters, dropping from 84 percent in 2017 to 78 percent in 2018. His strikeout rate rose by 4.2 percentage points, the 24th-greatest increase in the majors. Since 2015, his 15-game rolling average regarding contact ability (on all pitches) has been volatile but gradually declining.

According to Statcast data from Baseball Savant, Harper’s whiff rate against fastballs3 increased from 15.2 percent in 2016, to 20.2 percent in 2017 to 26.4 percent last season (ranking as the 36th-highest whiff rate in 2018 among 352 batters to offer against at least 200 fastballs). Against fastballs 95 mph and faster, Harper’s whiff rate increased from 18.8 percent in 2016 to 22.0 percent in 2017 to 31.5 percent in 2018.

Harper has always had a weakness against up-and-away fastballs. Since 2015, he has swung and missed at a 40.7 percent rate when offering at up-and-away four-seam fastballs.

Last season, Harper swung at 111 four-seam fastballs in those zones and whiffed 52 times, a 46.8 percent rate.


While defensive metrics can still be somewhat volatile from year to year,4 a player’s contact rate is much “stickier”5 — suggesting that big changes in the ability to make contact are more likely to represent a real change in skills and not just random variance.

It’s not all bad news at the plate, however: Against fastballs,6 Harper hit .306, with a .651 slugging percentage, according to Baseball Savant data.

Because Harper was effective when making contact against fastballs, perhaps he was trading the ability to make contact for more power. What he has not done is change his swing plane, according to launch angle data. His average launch angle was 14.5 degrees in 2015, 14.6 in 2016, 13.6 in 2017 and 13.9 in 2018. His pull rate did spike, jumping from 35.5 percent in 2017 to 42.3 percent in 2018.

Harper has elite plate discipline. He has elite power. But not every player who has made power gains in recent years — see Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Justin Turner and Jose Ramirez — has had to sacrifice contact. And the best, most efficient offensive performers typically do not trade contact for power.

What’s concerning is that even though some traits age well, like plate discipline, power generally does not. So if Harper’s defense continues to decline and he’s limited to a corner outfield position and continues to lose contact ability — if he becomes a Three True Outcomes hitter — he probably won’t age as the Phillies would like. He would likely morph from a highly sought-after asset, a 26-year-old star free agent, to the type of player easily found (a Three True Outcomes corner outfielder).

Because Harper was a prodigy in part as a result of relentless work and practice at a young age, he may have fulfilled his potential soon after his arrival in the majors. But he doesn’t have to be Trout-like to justify his contract. At $25.4 million per year, the Phillies are not paying him as an elite superstar. And if Harper helps Philadelphia add another World Series banner to Citizens Bank Park in the not-too-distant future, then it will likely be $330 million well spent regardless of how well he ages.


From ABC News:


Footnotes

  1. As of June 30 of the season in question.

  2. The first season of granular, pitch-level data at FanGraphs.

  3. Four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs and sinkers.

  4. Even among players who stayed at the same position in back-to-back years, the correlation between a player’s percentile rank at his position in defensive runs per inning from year to year is 0.36 since 2002.

  5. The same correlation for a batter’s strikeout rate in back-to-back seasons is 0.79.

  6. Again, four-seam fastballs, two-seam fastballs and sinkers.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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