Today Bryce Harper turns 26-years-old. In just a few weeks, he will be an unemployed free agent. Don’t feel sorry for the birthday boy because he is already in the wealthiest 1% in the world. When he becomes employed under his next contract, Harper will sign a guaranteed deal that could set a new record in baseball. Where the 2015 MVP lands is still a mystery. Harper probably only knows where he will not go, but there are some teams like the Braves who have already said they will not be pursuing Harper. In the end, the interest in Harper must be mutual for both sides. As Mike Rizzo says, “It takes two to tango.”
The Nationals could have traded away Bryce Harper before the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31st, and then the Nationals had a second chance to trade Harper when the Nats fell deep into 3rd place in mid-August when he was placed on revocable waivers and claimed by the Los Angeles Dodgers — but no trade was made.
“You look at Cal Ripken. You look at Derek Jeter. You look at all the greats that played for one team their whole career,” Harper said in 2012. “I want to be like [those players]. I’ve always wanted to be like that. I’ve always wanted to play with that same team.”
General manager Mike Rizzo did not trade Harper assuring that it is still a possibility that Harper could play for only one team in his career —if— Harper signs that long-term deal with the Nationals. There was a time that Harper hustled on batted routine grounders like Pete Rose and ran into walls like Ken Griffey Jr. with reckless abandon. Unfortunately, now Harper has been known to routinely jog to first base on groundballs, and not hustle on defense making his the second lowest rated defender on the Defensive Runs Saved stat. He ranked 259th in Statcast as a baserunner in 2018 compared to 189th in 2015.
“You’re going to get a fiery guy no matter if I’m sick, hurt or on my deathbed,” Harper said in 2013. “The fans expect that. They buy tickets because they want to see you play hard every night. That is what they are going to get out of me. This organization deserves that. The city deserves that. I am going to do that for the rest of my life. It doesn’t matter if I’m 40 years old or not. It’s not about the money. I love this game, and I never will disrespect it. It’s about doing what players did back in the day.”
Things have changed since Harper has aged, and the good news is he has not run into walls in the past few years. The bad news is that Harper has played without that fire that Nats fans admired about him. At 26-years-old, he has had highs and lows in his career, and baseball’s prime is usually at the age of 28 with only small declines to age 31 before age regression really becomes more noticeable as can be seen in this Yale study on Major League players.
If Harper career statistical arc follows the data on age progression and regression, he has six prime years ahead of him before age regression sets in. It is possible that we have not seen the best in Bryce Harper, and the player we saw in the second half of the season could be a future perennial MVP candidate. Harper’s post-All-Star break slash, was MVP worthy with .300/.434/.538/.972. Harper finally seemed to adapt to a 2-strike approach as well as going to the opposite field. For the full-season, Harper finished 5th in overall value to his own team behind Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and the 19-year-old phenom Juan Soto.
If you look deep into Harper’s WAR, his offensive WAR was excellent, but it was dragged down by his defense and was not helped by his baserunning. Can he improve all aspects of his game?
“I want to be the best,” Harper once said. “I want to be perfect in every aspect of the game. I play the game hard — real hard. I’m trying to win.”
That is the Bryce Harper we want to buy a ticket to see. Happy Birthday.