Is The Bryce Finally Right?
Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are two of only six players in MLB history to hit 50 homeruns and steal 30 bases through age 21. That is where the similarities end between the two generational talents. Both enter the 2015 campaign coming off the “worst” seasons of their young careers, but are seemingly trending in completely opposite directions. Trout was voted American League MVP last season. Harper was just voted the “most overrated player in baseball.”
It’s hard to believe that Harper is still only 22 years old. He’s younger than Kris Bryant, the consensus top prospect in baseball (and hottest commodity in fantasy baseball right now), who has never faced MLB pitching. Meanwhile, Harper has accrued nearly 1,500 major league plate appearances so far and has never faced a pitcher younger than him in the Majors. Just because Harper has failed to develop into a legitimate superstar, like Trout, to this point doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We are just four days away from Opening Day and Harper looks locked in at the plate this spring.
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“It’s a good time to remind ourselves that the progress isn’t linear,” said Theo Epstein, President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, in early August of 2013. “There are going to be other really bad months. There are going to be times when prospects go through difficult half-seasons, seasons. It looks like, ‘Hey, we thought these guys were going to be impact guys, and now they’re scuffling at Double-A. What’s going on?’ There are going to be times when we have really, really difficult periods in the big leagues.”
Progress isn’t linear. It’s important to keep that mindset in perspective when analyzing the development of an extremely young slugger like Harper. Our expectations for him are nearly impossible to live up to right out of the gate when you factor in how difficult the transition to the Majors has become for hitting prospects in recent years.
“The 2014 strikeout factor (1.26) was higher than the historical average (1.20), but the 2014 walk factor (0.80) and home run factor (0.77) were lower than their historical averages (0.83 and 0.84, respectively),” writes Ben Lindbergh. “In other words, the skill disparity between Triple-A and the majors is currently larger than normal — but not to a dramatic degree.”
Not everyone follows the career path of a Trout, Clayton Kershaw, or Mookie Betts (there, I said it) blazing a linear path to superstardom with zero setbacks. They are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to player development.
The crazy thing is, despite the overwhelming consensus that Harper has been a “disappointment” through the first three seasons of his Major League career, he’s actually performed at an extremely high level for someone his age and relative to other prospects his age, who have come up and struggled to hit at all. According to Grantland’s Jonah Keri, “Harper’s career .272/.351/.465 line rates as 25 percent better than league average”.
Harper’s fantasy stock is at an all-time low entering 2015. After back-to-back injury marred campaigns, there are some legitimate questions about his ability to stay on the field. In 2013, Harper’s sophomore campaign was derailed when he crashed into the right field wall in Dodger Stadium in May, which resulted in a serious knee injury. Last year, he injured his thumb sliding into third base while legging out a triple in late April. The injury kept him out for 57 games and sapped his ability to hit for power the remainder of the season.
Not only did Harper miss time last season, but his skills, most notably his plate discipline eroded completely. It may have been the result of injuries, or pressing, but the numbers don’t lie. He posted the lowest contact rate (70%) of his career, while his walk rate (10%) plummeted, and he struck out in 26% of his plate appearances, the highest rate of his career. Even more concerning was the complete lack of power, his .151 ISO (isolated power) was nearly 50 points lower than his career average.
We look for the signs of a breakout with any young hitter or pitcher by the adjustments they make either at the plate or on the mound. It’s become impossible to ignore the smoke signals coming from Nationals camp this spring surrounding Harper. The biggest adjustment he reportedly made this offseason has to do with his mindset and approach to the game mentally.
“It’s about being smart up here so you can play 150 instead of 100 games,” Harper told the Washington Post this spring. “I feel unbelievable right now,” he said.
The brash attitude and swagger remain the same as ever, but Harper seems to have learned from his injuries and appears committed to changing his approach, most notably scaling back his all-out mind-set on the diamond in order to preserve his health and stay on the field going forward.
The results of a more positive approach at the plate and an offseason workout program have been on display this spring. With less than a week to go before Opening Day, Harper is hitting .282/.451/.564 (11-for-39) with three homers, 12 walks and only 11 strikeouts.
Harper ranked fourth overall in our 2015 consensus outfielder rankings here on The Dynasty Guru this spring. He was ranked fifth overall by Bret Sayre in his Top 500 Overall list. Harper isn’t “undervalued” in most dynasty formats, but he appears to be on the verge of a breakout if you buy into the changes in his approach and the results at the plate this spring. This may be your last chance to acquire Harper for anything less than a top five overall price.
Fantasy championships are won by those who are willing to embrace risk where others shy away. Harper is the ultimate gamble, but his combination of age and elite power skills in the games current reduced run scoring environment, make him worth the risk. Is this the year he breaks out? Why not? If Harper puts together the monster campaign we all envision, we will look back on that home run off reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom as the signature moment when Harper truly evolved. Now is the time to get on board before it’s too late.