Breaking the Bank for Bryce: Is Harper Worth the Massive Contract?

Bryce Harper. The icon. The superstar. The phenom that captured the baseball world by storm after being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the ripe young age of 16. And now, the newest MLB star to sign a $300+ million dollar contract, just days after we saw Manny Machado sign a free agent record $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres. With players having reported for Spring Training last week and the 2019 season looming ever closer, the biggest question for the entire MLB offseason was where Harper will sign, and for how much. After signing a 13-year, $330 million dollar contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on February 28th, the question now sits, is he worth it? How much value does Harper bring to a team, strictly in terms of productivity? Let’s take a closer look at both the traditional and advanced statistics that speak to Harper’s true value.

Harper looks to etch his name into Philadelphia sports history with his massive $330 million dollar contract. Photo Credit to Nick Wass/Associated Press

Harper has been a full-time player for the Washington Nationals since 2012, meaning that we have seven full seasons worth of data by which to evaluate the 26-year-old. As all baseball fans are aware of now, Harper signed a 13-year contract with the Phillies worth $330 million, but is Harper worth that kind of contract? Since 2012, Harper has averaged a slash line of .279 / .388 / .512. None of these averages stands out as particularly astounding, but let’s dig a little deeper into the statistics. Harper has only led the MLB in any of the traditional stats a handful of times, and only twice outside of his MVP 2015 campaign. In 2016 he led the MLB in IBBs (intentional walks), and in his 2018 contract season, he led the MLB with 130 walks, a stat that he has ranked 5th in across the league since his debut in 2012. In his MVP season of 2015, Harper led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+ (a league and park adjusted way to measure OPS,) while leading the National League in both home runs and runs scored. These are Harper’s seven year totals and averages for traditional statistics:

         184 HR’s – 26.3 HR’s

         521 RBI’s – 74.4 RBI’s

         922 H’s – 131.7 H’s

         610 R’s – 87.1 R’s

         75 SB – 10.7 SB

What do these numbers tell us about Harper’s traditional production on the surface? The most comparable 2018 season to Harper’s career averages was probably Mitch Haniger, the Seattle Mariners outfielder. Haniger had a .285 / .366 / .493 slash in 2018, but walked at a significantly lower rate (10.2%) than Harper’s career average of 14.8%. It isn’t worth comparing, but just for reference, Haniger made $560,200 in 2018. 

So the traditional statistic averages for Harper don’t paint him in the greatest light. But if we dig a little bit deeper still, there are some highlights that begin to show Harper’s value in a bit truer light. Harper’s career 14.8% BB rate is 5th in the MLB since 2012 among qualifiers. The names above him? Joey Votto, Carlos Santana, Mike Trout, and Jose Bautista. Good company. Of the 74 qualifiers in that same timeframe, Harper has the 21st highest K rate, at 21.1%, slightly lower than that of fellow superstar Mike Trout (21.3%.) He ranks 5th in OBP, 10th in SLG, and 6th in OBP. What do these numbers tell us? Harper boosts his value significantly by his ability to draw walks and get on base, while striking out at a high rate ,albeit not an alarming one. While the traditional statistics don’t make Harper look like the superstar that he is, his averages show that he is significantly above league average when it comes to providing production for his team. 

Harper’s flair for the dramatic has quickly made him one of the MLB’s most popular players, as well as one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball.

Now let’s look at some advanced statistics to see how Harper stacks up to the competition. The most popular measure of a player’s value in today’s game is their Wins Above Replacement value (WAR). WAR is designed to measure a player’s contribution to their team in one statistic, measuring how much value a team would lose if their starter were to be lost (to injury or trade) and replaced with a readily available minor leaguer or bench player. WAR is a non-standardized statistic, meaning that it is computed differently in different places, but the two generally accepted measurements are computed by FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.

We’ll look at Baseball Reference first. Baseball Reference has Harper at a career 27.4 WAR, with a peak of 10.0 in 2015. A WAR ranging from 1-2 is considered a role player, 2-3 a solid starter, 3-4 a good player, 4-5 an All-Star, 5-6 a superstar, and 6+ as an MVP caliber player (according to FanGraphs.) By Baseball Reference’s standards, Harper has a career average of 3.9, but only 2.9 when his outlying MVP campaign of 2015 is subtracted. Example 2.9 WAR players in 2018 included Buster Posey, Gleyber Torres, Nelson Cruz, Khris Davis, Michael Conforto, and Nick Castellanos. While there are a couple of big names on that list, it is important to remember that there are notable one trick ponies Nelson Cruz (38 years old in 2018) and Khris Davis, as well as Buster Posey who saw his 2018 season cut short due to hip surgery and only played in 105 games (Posey has never posted a WAR below 4.1 in a full season.) Furthermore, Baseball Reference has Harper’s WAR for his 2018 contract season at a mere 1.3 (184th in the league), putting him at the production level of Russel Martin, Ryan Zimmerman, and Brock Holt. Harper also amassed 695 PA’s in 2018, his highest single-season value ever, which one could argue gave him the greatest opportunity to prove himself. His .249 / .393 / .493 slash line and 1.3 WAR, however, seem to indicate that there was something left to be desired (despite his .393 OBP being good for 9thin the league.) 

FanGraphs has Harper at a career 30.7 WAR, good for 12thin that timeframe, and a 2018 total of 3.5 (46thin the league.) Again, however, if you take out Harper’s 2015 season of 9.3 WAR, you’re left with a career average of only 3.6. Examples of 3.6 WAR players in 2018 according to FanGraphs were Travis Shaw, Cody Bellinger, and Joey Votto (whom WAR has never evaluated very kindly). While a 3.6 WAR player is listed as a “good player” by FanGraphs standards, it is also far from the superstar threshold that we have been taught to believe Bryce Harper exists on. 

Let’s look at a couple of more advanced statistics that shed light on Harper’s productivity, wOBA and wRC+. For an explanation of these two statistics, please visit our February 24th article, “Who’s on First?  – Minnesota Twins Edition.” Harper’s wOBA in 2018 was .376, which was good for 15th in the league—and slightly below his career average of .383. However, that .383 is good for 8th in the league since 2012. It’s also worth noting that while Harper’s .376 value in 2018 found him behind 14 other players, and a mark over .370 is considered highly productive. Harper’s wRC+ for 2018 was 135, 17thin the MLB. His career average is 140, which places him 10thin that timeframe. 

Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Matt Klentak is all smiles with Harper putting pen to paper. The 4th year GM has made a number of prominent acquisitions throughout the offseason. Photo Credit to Matt Rourke/Associtaed Press

So what do these numbers tell us about Harper? On the surface, these numbers seem to indicate that Bryce Harper is consistently one of the top 15 most productive players in baseball. Neither his WAR value, wOBA, nor wRC+ indicate that Harper should be considered one of the top five most valuable players today, and when combined it seems most fair to say that Harper is right around the tenth most productive player in the league. So the question then is, how much is the tenth best player in the league worth, and should he be given a 13-year contract?

With Harper there are other things to be considered of course—star value and potential being the two biggest of them. There’s no denying these days that Harper brings an inherent star value with him. People love talking about Bryce Harper. People love watching Bryce Harper play. Bryce Harper is electric. So even when he isn’t producing at the level at which he is capable, Bryce Harper brings literal monetary value to a team. And then there’s the question of his potential—has Bryce Harper yet to actually mature all the way? Is there more in the tank? Based off of his 2015 production, the answer really seems to be a resounding “yes!” Sure, there are examples of one-hit wonders. Mark Fidrych won 19 games in his rookie campaign for the Tigers in 1976 only to never win more than six again. Or perhaps a more apt comparison for this point in Harper’s career is Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a solid player for a long time in the major leagues, but in 2001 had an unprecedented season in which he hit 57 home runs and had a 8.9 WAR. In no other season did he ever hit more than 31 home runs or top a 6.6 WAR. Despite being a very good player for the better part of two decades, he never again achieved his superstar status or production levels of 2001. Is that what Harper is destined for? It’s better for baseball if the answer to that question is no. Harper has been one of the biggest names in the game since before his debut in 2012, and he’ll likely remain one of the game’s most enigmatic for a long time as well. But it would be hard to argue that the game isn’t better when its biggest stars are playing well, and Bryce Harper undoubtedly meets that criteria. 

So what is Harper’s worth? It’s hard to say. Most metrics indicate that he produces at a higher level than Manny Machado, who recently signed a deal for $300 million. While Machado’s wOBA, wRC+, and WAR values were all higher for 2018, Harper’s career wOBA and wRC+ are both significantly higher than Machado’s. It’s fair to agree that teams care more about a player’s productivity right now than their career total, as players in theory improve after their first few seasons—but since 2016, Harper has also outpaced Machado by significant margins in both wOBA and wRC+. This is important because it doesn’t consider Harper’s outlier MVP season of 2015—and yet still indicated he produces at a higher level. However, Machado has a higher WAR value—15.1 to 11.2—than Harper does over that same timeframe, in large part due to Harper’s known defensive woes (-26 defensive runs saved in 2018.) 

After winning 80 games last season, Harper and a handful of other prominent players could take Philadelphia over the top and amongst the elite teams in the MLB.
Photo Credit to Alex Brandon/Associated Press

With Harper signing his massive contract, the pressure is on not only for the former Washington National but also for the Philadelphia Phillies. Every year players that produced at the same level as last year are inherently worth more, as the game continues to grow richer. Contracts don’t take a step backwards, despite the seemingly slow free agent market over that last couple of seasons. At one point anyone signing a contract for $250 million would have been unthinkable, and yet in 2007 Alex Rodriguez did just that. And still in 2017 it would have been unthinkable for a player of Giancarlo Stanton’s value (or anyone’s for that matter) to sign a contract worth $325 million, and yet here we are. Players have a responsibility to each other to get their value in the open market so they don’t devalue the market for one another, and they also have a right to get paid for the value they bring to a team, both in terms of production on the field and in their marketable value.

With Harper now preparing for his Spring Training debut with the Phillies, the story of Harper’s free agency has yet to be finished. This contract will play out over the next 13 seasons as Harper looks to bring baseball glory back to the city of Brotherly Love. Once those 13 seasons have come to a close, we will have a complete idea on whether the former NL MVP was worth the money. But until then, let the debates begin.

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