Why Is Bryce Harper’s Old Team Ahead Of Bryce Harper’s New Team?

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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Turns Out The NL East Didn’t Have Four Good Teams

One of the most entertaining series in baseball last weekend pitted the Atlanta Braves against the Philadelphia Phillies, with the teams splitting a pair of late-game comeback wins before the Braves ran away with a 15-1 laugher in Sunday’s rubber match. We should get used to this. One of these two clubs is probably going to win the National League East, and both could figure significantly into the NL’s postseason picture. In what once looked like a crowded division battle, the Braves and Phillies have emerged as clear favorites, largely leaving their rivals in the dust.

Before the season, we called the NL East the “tightest division race in baseball,” and that did hold true … for about a month. On April 28, the division’s top four teams — the Phillies, Braves, New York Mets and Washington Nationals — sat within three games of each other, even if Washington and (to a lesser extent) Atlanta had scuffled some coming out of the gate. Things have changed since then, however. The Phillies and Braves are a combined 53-36 since April 28, while the Mets and Nats are 41-49. (The fifth-place Miami Marlins have been more competitive recently as well, but they never really stood a chance of vying for the division or the playoffs.)

Although the division is far from locked up, the two teams at the top now have a combined 86 percent chance of winning the East, according to the FiveThirtyEight model. Here’s how our model has judged the state of the division race over time:

Atlanta pulled into the division driver’s seat in part by virtue of this weekend’s series victory over Philadelphia (which included that landslide 15-1 win) and yet another blowout over the Mets on Monday night. That’s nothing new; the team has generally been on a tear all month. Since the start of June, no club has added more to its Elo rating than the Braves, who have won 13 of 16 contests and have boosted their rating by 14 points — from 1513 (16th in MLB) to 1527 (10th) — over that span.

Rookie Braves left fielder Austin Riley, who made his debut on May 15, has hit a remarkable 11 home runs in his first 31 MLB games, while Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Josh Donaldson continue to enjoy strong seasons. (Even shortstop Dansby Swanson has begun to live up to his top-prospect billing from several years ago.) Moreover, the Braves’ pitching — already highlighted by 21-year-old ace Mike Soroka (2.12 ERA) and a resurgent Julio Teheran (2.92) — figures to improve depth-wise with the addition of free agent Dallas Keuchel, who is set to debut for Atlanta soon.

All of this helps explain how Atlanta has built a 59 percent probability of winning the East and a 78 percent chance of returning to the playoffs after its breakout season last year. But before the Braves pulled ahead this week, the Phillies had led the NL East in division win probability in each of the previous eight weeks.

Philly has loads of top-level talent on its side, among Bryce Harper, Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and company. Some of that talent has underachieved — Harper (on pace for 2.3 wins above replacement)1 hasn’t quite been a dominant force in his first Phillie season,2 while Nola (4.89 ERA) has struggled to replicate last year’s near-Cy Young campaign. But others have stepped up: Hoskins is one of the game’s most underrated players, offseason pickups J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura are performing well, and Nola’s downturn has been mostly offset in the rotation by Zach Eflin’s better-than-expected numbers (2.81 ERA). Even when future Hall of Fame outfielder Andrew McCutchen was lost for the season with an ACL tear in early June, new acquisition Jay Bruce started raking (1.085 OPS) in his place.

The Mets and Nationals — who sit in third and fourth place, respectively — are running short on time if they want to stage their own comebacks. Our Elo ratings think that Washington (1523) is effectively interchangeable with the Braves (1527) and Phillies (1520) on a talent basis. But even if every remaining game is a coin flip, the Nats’ nine-game deficit will be difficult to dig out of, particularly with three teams ahead of them in the division race and six teams running ahead for the second wild card. Meanwhile, New York’s roster is a cut below (1508 Elo) regardless of its many offseason moves — and that’s in spite of breakout performances from Pete Alonso (on pace for 5.5 WAR), Jeff McNeil (3.5) and Dominic Smith (2.9).

For some hope, perhaps the Nats and Mets can look to Philly’s beneficial early luck in both close games (worth three extra wins) and sequencing (worth another four wins) as a sign that the Phillies might fall off the pace set by their 39-32 record. But the Braves have few such holes to poke in their resume, and the gap between the East’s top two and next two (5½ games) looks daunting as the second half of the season approaches.

Maybe that means the 2019 National League could be shaping up to look a little like 1993 all over again, when the Braves and Phillies battled all season for NL supremacy. Atlanta was stocked with Hall of Famers and still relatively early in a dynasty that would ultimately span into the mid-2000s; Philadelphia had a motley group of mulleted upstarts who weren’t supposed to contend but ended up winning 97 games. This time, the roles could be recast with Soroka playing Greg Maddux, Harper as Lenny Dykstra (a stark contrast in conduct but not talent), Realmuto as Darren Daulton and Acuña as Ron Gant.

Back in ’93, a Braves-Phillies NLCS determined a spot in the World Series. This year, the ever-dominant Dodgers (to whom our model assigns a near-certain playoff probability and a 103-win projection) will probably have something to say about the pennant. But the East, at the very least, appears to run through Atlanta and Philadelphia again.

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Bryce Harper May Already Be Past His Prime

The Philadelphia Phillies and star outfielder Bryce Harper on Thursday reached a record free-agent agreement in terms of total dollars ($330 million) and years (13). After waiting 123 days since the World Series ended, Harper breaks the mark set just days earlier by Manny Machado. The previous open-market record — Alex Rodriguez’s free-agent contract for $275 million deal with the Yankees on Dec. 13, 2007 — stood for 11 years until this winter.1

But Harper’s deal falls short in terms of annual average value ($25.4 million). For instance, Rodriguez’s mega deals signed in 2007 and 2001 each had greater average values, and offseason speculation expected that Harper might command more than $30 million per season.2 There is no opt-out clause in the deal, but there is a no-trade clause. Given the deal’s less-than-expected annual average value and Harper’s far-longer-than-expected wait on the open market, the contract suggests that the baseball industry didn’t quite know what to make of Bryce Harper.

The good news for the Phillies is that Harper should help them immediately. Based on 100 simulations run for FiveThirtyEight by Out of the Park Developments, Harper will improve the Phillies from an 80.2-win team in 2019 to an 86.1-win team, though the computer forecasts still had Philadelphia missing the postseason. Harper caps an aggressive offseason for the Phillies, who traded for catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura and added notable free agents Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson to a young core led by ace pitcher Aaron Nola and slugger Rhys Hoskins.

But what’s troubling for the Phillies, who are now committed to Harper through his age 38 season in 2031, is that there’s a good chance that Harper has already played his best baseball.

Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2009 at age 16, dubbed the “most exciting prodigy since LeBron.” A year later, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He debuted as a 19-year-old in 2012 and won rookie of the year. In 2015, he posted a season of 10 wins above replacement and was named as the National League MVP. Since he reached the majors in 2012, he’s 20th in position player WAR, and he owns a .900 OPS (on-base plus slugging). In many ways, he’s lived up to the hype.

But seven seasons into his career, we’re not exactly sure what type of player Harper is. While he’s shown stretches of brilliance, volatility in performance has been his most consistent trait.

This has led to an unusual career trajectory to date.

He’s one of only 15 position players 25 and younger to own a 10-WAR season, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The rare company includes Ted Williams, Mike Trout, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr. But he’s had just the one elite-level season.3 His other campaigns have had a range of outcomes, from 1.1 to 5.1 WAR. Even within seasons, he’s had dramatic peaks and valleys. Last year, for instance, he hit .214 with an .833 OPS in the first half but was a star in the second half when he hit .300 with a .972 OPS.

Injuries have played a role in this. Harper has played fewer than 120 games in three of his seven years in the majors, and those partial seasons have also limited his ability to rack up WAR, which is a cumulative stat that rewards just showing up for work.

FiveThirtyEight examined all players in MLB history who have had one season of 8 or more WAR — but only one — before turning 26, and then we studied the trajectory of those players’ careers. There are 32 such players in MLB history, including three other than Harper who are still active: Aaron Judge, Matt Chapman (who hasn’t played his age 26 season) and Evan Longoria. Of the 28 players who are no longer active, 17 never produced another 8-plus WAR season after their age 25 season.

The historical players studied peaked at age 24 (6.6 WAR) and 25 (6.5 WAR), then they declined steadily. A player’s peak is often earlier than conventional wisdom would expect. Jeff Zimmerman at FanGraphs found that while the average ballplayer peaks at age 27, good players peak at either 25 or 26 years old.

While there are exceptions like Adrian Beltre and Henry Aaron, who had some of their best years later in their careers, the best baseball happens early for many excellent players. That doesn’t mean that Harper (or Machado, for that matter) can’t be a star-level player regularly, but history is betting against him becoming a consistent MVP presence like Mike Trout. Baseball may not quite know what Bryce Harper is, but the Phillies are going to find out.

Neil Paine contributed research.