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Bryce Harper isn’t a ‘losing player,’ but we might be overvaluing him

No, Bryce Harper is not a “losing player.” But it’s completely fair to wonder if he’s worth $400 million.

Washington Nationals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

On Monday morning, a column by Robert Murray of FRS Baseball set the baseball world ablaze (relatively speaking) after an anonymous National League executive was quoted as saying that Nationals right fielder and pending free agent Bryce Harper is “simply overrated” and a “selfish, losing player.” The exec claimed that his team would have no interest in Harper and that he’d rather “use that money to sign 2-3 winning players.”

It’s easy to see why that statement is an ignorant one that most people won’t take seriously; Harper is a five-time All-Star, was the NL MVP in 2015, and currently leads the NL in home runs. Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made that clear when he came to Harper’s defense in what almost came off (OK, just did come off) as an overreaction, throwing things like Harper’s charitable work into the mix as proof of him being a “winner” while also attempting to discredit Murray’s reporting, calling it “yellow journalism” while referring to Murray (who has broken quite a few major stories over the past year) as “somebody that nobody knows” and throwing the tired “blogger” diss his way — one that might’ve been insulting in 2005, but not in today’s media environment, where many of the most respected beat writers work for TheAthletic.com and established veteran insiders like Ken Rosenthal, Jon Heyman, Peter Gammons, and Jayson Stark write exclusively online.

It’s clear, as Rizzo will attest, that Harper is a great player, and no one (other than the anonymous NL exec, that is) is disputing that. It’s worth wondering, however, if Harper is great enough that he deserves the double-digit-years, $400-million-plus contract that many around baseball have been speculating for years that he’ll receive this offseason.

First off, it’s important to note that Harper does carry some extra value, probably several million dollars’ worth, just due to the fact that he’s quite possibly the most recognizable face in baseball. There just aren’t many current MLB players that you’ll find playing “Catchphrase” with Gigi Hadid on The Tonight Show or starring in national T-Mobile ad campaigns, but Harper is one of those guys. We’ve seen free agents such as Dexter Fowler and Eric Hosmer earn more money than they probably deserved in recent years because of their “icon” value — their TV friendliness and their status as guys whose jerseys will fly off the shelves — and Harper definitely seems like a player who carries that same kind of prestige.

It’s quite easy to determine where that off-the-field value stems from: A June 2008 Sports Illustrated cover story that declared a then-16-year-old Harper to be “Baseball’s LeBron.” Harper was taken by the Nationals with the No. 1 overall pick the next summer, and the hype remained as fans and media obsessively followed his journey through the minor leagues (remember when he generated national headlines for getting ejected from a Double-A game?), all the way through his MLB debut in late April of 2012. Though Harper was an All-Star and won the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Award, it’s not as if he really had an off-the-charts entrance to the major leagues; he hit .230/.318/.419 with two homers over his first 20 major-league games and was the talk of baseball, if not sports as a whole. Comparatively, Harper’s now-teammate, 19-year-old Juan Soto, has hit .344/.447/.641 with five homers over his first 20 big-league games but isn’t really well-known among people who aren’t baseball diehards or Nationals fans. Granted, Harper’s numbers eventually improved during his rookie season, but it sure seems like the hype that surrounds him to this day existed before he ever even played a major-league game.

Harper has been one of baseball’s best players throughout his seven-year career, and yet it still feels like he’s been somewhat of a disappointment — and that’s kind of understandable, given that SI compared him when he was 16 to a guy who’s turned out to be the greatest player in the history of basketball. Harper has posted a .280/.385/.514 slash line for his career — very good, but it feels like it could be better for a player who was basically forecasted to be a surefire future Hall of Famer, and as the “losing player” comment mentioned above alludes to, he hasn’t been able to help the Nationals to a playoff series win in four postseason appearances (then again, LeBron himself didn’t win a ring until he was 27 years old, so finding postseason success clearly takes time.)

The biggest factor in Harper’s perceived through-the-roof value, though, is that he’s just 25 years old and will have just turned 26 when he hits the free-agent market this winter. We’ve seen that youth pay off for mid-20s free agents like Alex Rodriguez and Jason Heyward in past years, and we saw it to a lesser extent last offseason when the 28-year-old Hosmer received an eight-year contract —the only one longer than five years for a position player, and one of only two position player contracts (at $144 million, along with J.D. Martinez’s $110 million deal) that was worth nine figures.

The hope in giving a massive contract as described above to a young free agent like Harper is twofold; first, that his skill set will hold up over most of the deal, preventing a situation like the ones we’re seeing right now with guys like Albert Pujols and Jacoby Ellsbury who have burned out in their mid-to-late 30s. Secondly, there’s a hope that they might progress a bit more during their second contract — and that’s a fair hope with Harper, considering that he’s much more experienced but younger than players atop the major-league leaderboards such as Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, and Jose Ramirez. With that said, that type of progression from a young star player after he signs his first free-agent contract is by no means typical — Rodriguez is the most prominent example of a player seeing a major progression in his numbers after signing a megadeal in his mid-20s, and with 20-20 hindsight, there may have been more to that progression than we knew at the time.

As Harper gets set to become a free agent for the first time this winter, he’s certainly not making the greatest final push to boost his value, and he’s not separating himself from the pack among elite outfielders. He’s in the midst of a perplexing season, as he’s posted a .224 batting average — a metric that is no longer the primary indicator of success for a hitter, but absolutely can’t be ignored once it dips into the .220s. However, thanks to an NL-leading 19 homers and a .364 OBP fueled by 50 walks — eight of which were explicitly intentional, and others of which were surely because teams for some reason pitched around him — Harper has a very solid .864 OPS. Even with that surprising, perhaps semi-fluky total, there’s a very strong case to be made that Harper is only the third-best player at his own position in the majors right now — and a more lukewarm one to be made that he may rank fourth or fifth. Harper has the fifth-highest OPS among major-league right fielders this season, trailing Mookie Betts (1.171), Aaron Judge (.959), Nick Markakis (.880), and Mitch Haniger (.876). While Markakis hasn’t been this productive since his early 20s and likely won’t sustain these numbers, Betts and Judge may very well continue to be more productive than Harper over the long term, and while Haniger still relatively unproven, it’s not hard to see him working his way up into that Betts/Judge/Harper echelon in the near future, either.

It’s also worth noting that the same argument that was used against Hosmer ad nauseam last offseason can also be used against Harper — albeit to a different degree. Since his rookie season, Harper has alternated between seasons that are slightly above average in even years and elite in odd ones. He posted an OPS+ above 130 (in other words, 30 points above league average) in 2013, 2015, and 2017. He hit for an OPS+ below 120 in 2012, 2014, and 2016, bottoming out at 111 (which is still pretty good by most players’ standards) in ’14. It is worth noting, however, that because of his home-run hitting and insanely-high walk rate, Harper is on pace to have his highest-ever OPS+ in an even year this season despite a career-low batting average. Still, it’s clear that he’s not having an elite offensive season this year, and it’s easy to see how that inconsistency could get frustrating for whatever team gives Harper a massive contract that could end up being the largest in MLB history.

While Harper has at times shown himself to be a very solid or even above-average outfielder, his advanced defensive metrics aren’t good this season — an alarming trend, and one that seemingly should affect his earning potential, considering the nearly-insane value teams have placed on defense when evaluating free agents in recent years. Entering play on Thursday, Harper ranked last among qualifying major-league right fielders in UZR/150 (-17.4) and was ranked 15th out of 19 in defensive runs saved (-5). Yes, Harper has been rated as a solid defender in the past — his metrics somehow rate much better as a center fielder (14 DRS, 7.6 UZR/150, largely thanks to great production there early in his career) than they do as a right fielder (4 DRS, 0.5 UZR/150). But as Harper moves into his late 20s, those declining metrics have to be treated with some degree of legitimacy, especially after he suffered a relatively significant knee injury last season. Harper likely will remain playable in the outfield at least into his early 30s, but with teams being as risk-averse as they are with contracts these days, does it make sense for a team to pay Harper $20 million (let alone $40 million) per season into his mid-to-late-30s if there’s a decent chance of him having to become a DH or move to first base for the second half of the contract?

Ultimately, because of inflation over the last four years, it’s reasonable to expect that Harper should earn something similar to the 13-year, $325-million contract Giancarlo Stanton received following his age-24 season in 2014, even though Stanton posted an OPS+ above 130 in four of his first five major-league seasons, while Harper has done so a comparatively less impressive three times over his first six. And that’s assuming that the free-agent market bounces back and front offices express a greater willingness to pay Harper into his late 30s than they have with most other free agents in recent years. It’s clear that Harper is a talented player with upside who is going to earn a massive contract this offseason. But when you really boil things down and consider that he’s not the best right fielder in the league, his defense appears to be declining, and front offices are more unwilling than ever to hand out contracts that extend over multiple decades, it’s really difficult to understand why a team would give him a contract with a value exceeding or even approaching $400 million, and it’s easier to understand why the “overrated” complaints come into play — even if Harper isn’t the “losing player” that some might believe he is.