Bryce Harper Is Making History The Wrong Way
Take a look at the National League East standings and you’ll see the Washington Nationals sitting comfortably in first place with one of the best records in baseball. They are currently given a 12.8% chance of winning it all by Fangraphs, this is the best in baseball among teams not named the Chicago Cubs.
Based on this, one would assume that everything is going smoothly in Washington. They have seen breakout seasons from Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos, coupled with a fantastic pitching staff that has posted the second best ERA in baseball to this point. Not so fast though.
This isn’t quite the case with their most notable player and reigning National League MVP, Bryce Harper. There’s no getting around the fact that Bryce is struggling mightily. He has been lucky enough to be bailed out by other emerging offensive weapons surrounding him in the Nationals lineup. However, with the postseason looming and no room for error in Washington after past disappointments, it’s time to stop and look at just how poorly Bryce has performed this season.
Harper’s 2016 Campaign
Let’s take a look at Harper’s stats to this point in the 2016 season…
Not very good at all. If you’re the Washington Nationals, it’s never a treat to see the face of your franchise putting up sub-par line of .235/.380/.823 at the plate. This is especially true when the vast majority of the season has come and gone as we move into August.
Shown by the chart below, Harper ranks poorly among players who have seen 400 or more plate appearances this season. To be exact, his 1.55 WAR places him 64th out of 89 qualifying players at the moment. This puts the beloved Nationals outfielder in roughly the 28th percentile. In case you need a reference point, this is just a few spots ahead of another successful teams struggling outfielder: Jason Heyward.
So we have established that Harper’s performance isn’t living up to expectations. This was to be expected to an extent. I mean we are fresh off a 2015 season where he rolled through National League pitching to the tune of an impressive .460 OBP and a flat out intimidating 1.109 OPS. However, nobody expected this.
What has gone so terribly wrong since 2015? Everyone has their own theories about the root of his struggles. Some cite specific pitches giving him trouble, others point the finger at his approach in various counts. Regardless of the reasoning behind Harper’s disappointing numbers, it’s clear we aren’t looking at the same player we saw in 2015.
The chart shown above shows major percentage statistics over the course of Harper’s young career. Upon a quick glance, the dramatic dip in output over the last year is quite obvious. Perhaps even more alarming is the bigger picture that appears when looking at these visuals. Harper’s MVP campaign last year is beginning to look like an outlier in the scope of his career.
As we move forward, we must start to ask ourselves: should expect another 2015 caliber performance out of Harper? Or is it safe to say that 2015 was the exception to the pedestrian numbers Harper has put up more consistently?
Before we hit the panic button on Harper’s career, lets remember that he is still extremely young. We are spoiled by the Mike Trouts of the world, causing us to expect the manifestation of talent to happen by age 23. That just isn’t the case in the vast majority of players. However, Bryce Harper is starting to look more and more like he belongs in that majority.
Most Valuable Player
When we hear the phrase “Most Valuable Player”, excellence comes to mind. Excellence is exactly what we saw watching Bryce Harper in 2015 as he won the National League MVP and was widely viewed as the best player in baseball. But just how good was Harper’s MVP season compared to past MVP campaigns?
Harper’s WAR of 9.93 last season ranked 25th out of 165 past MVP performances in history. This puts him in the 85th percentile, as shown by the chart displaying other top MVP seasons to the right. This is all pretty impressive stuff when you consider that nearly every player near him in the all-time list has been immortalized in Cooperstown.
With MVPs posting a mean 7.5 wins above replacement in their historic seasons, it’s obvious that they provide great value to their team. I mean that’s what being the MVP is all about, right?
The Post MVP “Drop-Off”
Only a select few have proven the ability to reproduce these “Most Valuable Player”-caliber statistics year in and year out. For this reason, we can usually expect a moderate decline in performance the following year.
Apparently, nobody told Bryce about the “moderate” key word there. If Harper continues his current performance, he will rack up around .57 more wins above replacement and post a 2.12 WAR for the 2016 season. That would create a MVP “Drop-Off” of an astounding 7.8 runs. Excluding players who didn’t play full seasons due to injuries or other outstanding circumstances, that number would rank last all time for MVPs in the year after winning the award. You read that correctly.
Bryce Harper is on pace for the most disappointing Most Valuable Player “encore” season of all time. Let’s take a look at the phenomenon visually below:
- Language: Python
- Environment: Tableau, Jupyter Notebook
- Date Completed: August 2016
- Techniques Used: Data Cleaning, Data Visualization, Data Driven Story Telling
- Data Source: Retrosheet & Baseball Reference
- See My Code: Github