For seven years, Bryce Harper was an integral part of the Washington Nationals both on and off the field. Harper remains the team’s fourth-best player by wins above replacement5 since the franchise moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005, trailing only Ryan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. In 2015, he had one of the all-time great individual seasons by a batter, notching 9.7 WAR. At the same time, Harper was the face of the franchise in the press and probably the most famous player in baseball. When it became clear that Harper was leaving D.C. last winter, it looked like Washington had a huge void to fill — a concern only exacerbated when Harper went to the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies in a record-setting deal.
And yet, more than halfway into the Nationals’ first post-Bryce season, they appear to be just fine. While the Atlanta Braves are very likely to win the National League East, Washington is on track to snag the NL’s top wild card slot with 87 projected wins (according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast) and a 66 percent playoff probability. The Phillies, meanwhile, are only tracking for 83 wins and have just a 31 percent chance at the postseason. How is it possible that Harper’s old team has not only survived without him, but outperformed his new team up the Northeast Corridor?
For one thing, Washington always had a very underrated core outside of Harper — starting with future Hall of Fame pitcher Max Scherzer, who currently leads the major leagues in pitching WAR6 after finishing second in each of the previous two seasons. Scherzer began 2019 somewhat slow, but he’s been building a truly dominant campaign ever since; his fielding-independent pitching of 2.02 is 54 percent better than the MLB average and his strikeout rate of 12.6 per nine innings is one of the best in baseball history. If Scherzer maintains his current pace for a 9.6-WAR season — once he returns from injury — he would have the majors’ best pitching season since Randy Johnson in 2001 (and one of the 40 best of all-time).
Scherzer isn’t Washington’s only stellar starter, either. Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are on pace for 5.8 and 5.3 WAR, respectively, helping make the Nationals’ rotation the most valuable collection of starting pitchers in baseball this season. Add in a strong group of position players — including veterans such as Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick, plus up-and-comers like 20-year-old phenom Juan Soto (whose late home run stunned the Phillies in a Nationals win last week) and rookie Victor Robles — and the talent cupboard was far from bare in D.C. despite Harper’s exit.
Not everything is going perfectly right for the Harper-less Nats, of course: 26-year-old shortstop Trea Turner, who played like an All-Star (4.4 WAR) last season, is having a down year due to an early season injury and poor performance on defense. (Blending together the defensive metrics from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, Turner grades out as -9.2 runs worse than an average shortstop this season, after being basically average over the previous two years.)7 Outfielder Adam Eaton has been mediocre at the plate (.752 on-base plus slugging), and veteran second baseman Brian Dozier, who signed with Washington in the offseason, is hitting .231 and appears to be well past his prime. The team’s defense remains a weakness, and its bullpen has been very shaky (24th in relief WAR) beyond closer Sean Doolittle.
But all told, the Nationals have only suffered slightly on offense — their hitting WAR has gone from ninth last year to 13th this year — without Harper’s presence at the plate, and they’ve actually improved their leaguewide ranking in overall WAR from 11th with him in 2018 to 10th without him in 2019:
If the talent surrounding Harper in Washington was always underrated because of the gravitational pull of his star power, Harper’s own impact was probably always a bit overstated. That isn’t to say Harper is not a very good player; at age 26, he has already been roughly as good in his career as, say, Harold Baines (who at least some people thought should be in the Hall of Fame). But as my colleague Travis Sawchik and I wrote in March, Harper is also a flawed superstar — and he has played almost precisely to that form this season.
Looking at his previous three seasons, a reasonable expected baseline for Harper’s 2019 value for Philadelphia could have been set at about 3.1 WAR — three times his WAR from 2018 (2.4), plus two times his WAR from 2017 (4.7), plus his WAR from 2016 (2.2), divided by six. And lo and behold, if you prorate Harper’s current output (1.9 WAR in 95 games) to a full season, it comes out to … 3.2 WAR. Although there is a growing feeling among some Phillies observers that Harper’s Delaware Valley debut has been a disappointment, he has performed almost exactly how you might have predicted.
The only letdown might be this: Harper’s monster 2015 season did still imply some probability of an MVP-caliber performance — moreso than from the typical 26-year-old who’d had 9.3 WAR over his previous three seasons. So 2019 appears to be another season of Harper not converting what small chance there was of him ever reaching that hyper-productive ceiling again.
Harper’s path to that 3.2-WAR pace has been slightly different than usual. His strikeout rate continues to climb (somehow much faster than the MLB-wide rate), from 18.7 percent of plate appearances in 2016 to 26.2 percent so far in 2019, and his isolated power (.220) is the lowest it’s been in three seasons. Harper’s walk rate, which ballooned to 18.7 percent last season, is back down to 15 percent — more in line with his career rate of 14.8 percent. But his StatCast batting metrics have stayed relatively steady; his average exit velocity is actually up from MLB’s 82nd percentile to its 90th. Harper’s OPS has dropped from .889 to .845 on the season, thanks in large part to the decline in plate discipline, but he’s also hitting the ball just about as hard as ever. (He’s also heating up in July, with a .885 OPS this month, so we’ll have to keep an eye on Harper for a potential second-half surge.)
The best sign for Harper might be that his defense — which was conspicuously bad last season according to the advanced metrics — is back to being solid. Again averaging together the fielding values at FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, Harper was 20.2 runs worse than average while playing mostly right field last season. That number was way out of step with his previous track record (4.3 runs above average over the previous two seasons) and easy to identify as a place for positive reversion to the mean in 2019. So sure enough, Harper has been 4.7 runs better than the average right fielder this season, which is enough to offset his OPS drop and leave him on pace for slightly more WAR in 2019 than in 2018.
Despite playing almost precisely to expectations, Harper is still just the fourth-best player on the Phillies, however, behind catcher J.T. Realmuto, first baseman Rhys Hoskins and pitcher Aaron Nola. (Shortstop Jean Segura and surging jack-of-all-trades Scott Kingery aren’t too far behind, either.) Philadelphia also has had its share of legitimately disappointing players, from starters Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez to outfielder Odubel Herrera (who was suspended for the season for domestic assault earlier this month), while injuries have largely robbed Philly of expected contributions from relievers David Robertson, Pat Neshek and Seranthony Dominguez.
The Phillies started the season with more (healthy) talent on paper than its current 83-win trajectory would suggest. But not by much. Harper’s fame always made his departure from Washington — and arrival in Philadelphia — feel more consequential than it actually was. The Nationals have survived without their erstwhile star because they made years of shrewd decisions filling out the roster around him. The Phillies have held steady this season8 in part because of bad injury luck and other underwhelming performances — but Harper can’t be included in that group, even if he isn’t playing to his ceiling. He’s been about as good as usual, and that was neither enough to tank Washington’s season in absentia or save Philadelphia’s by addition.
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