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Bryce Harper, Outfielder

In approximately seven hours, the Washington Nationals will select Bryce Harper with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. In a couple of months, they’ll sign Harper to a lucrative contract, and he’ll begin his professional career – most likely, as an outfielder.

A catcher by trade, the Nationals are said to be leaning towards moving Harper to the outfield on a full-time basis. As is usually the case when a premium prospect is moved down the defensive spectrum, the reaction from the sabermetric community that I have read has been mostly negative. It is quite common to read comments to the effect that Harper’s value is diminished as an outfielder, because his bat is so much more valuable behind the plate, where premium bats are a rare breed.

However, there’s a presumption in these statements that I don’t believe holds true – that Harper’s projected offensive value is a constant regardless of his defensive position. Put simply, that isn’t supported by years of history of Major League Baseball.

Catching is hard work. It takes a toll on the human body, wearing players down and requiring frequent days of rest. Knees and backs routinely decide to give out from the stress that crouching behind the plate puts on them. Even the players who avoid the disabled list have to deal with the fatigue that just comes with the job.

There’s a reason why no catcher in Major League history has eclipsed 10,000 career plate appearances. By comparison, 33 outfielders have racked up at least 10,000 plate appearances, with the leader (Carl Yastrzemski) almost reaching 14,000. It is simply a statement of fact that Harper would be expected to have a longer career in MLB as an outfielder than he would as a catcher. The quantity of time that he would be able to add value on the field is larger, even if the potential quality of that production is lower.

So, simply applying a position adjustment and claiming its a bad move to make Harper an outfielder doesn’t cut it. If we want to really know whether this move makes sense, we’d have to explore whether the increase expectation in playing time outweighs the decreased value from not having Harper’s bat at a position of low offensive output. Beyond that, we’d also have to determine the effect that playing catcher could have on stagnating Harper’s offensive growth.

94 catchers in Major League history have accumulated at least 3,000 plate appearances. You know how many have posted a career OPS over .900? One – Mike Piazza. Okay, fine, a career .900 OPS is a pretty high bar (63 players at other positions have done it, but it’s still a pretty impressive feat), so lets lower it to .800 – 11 catchers in Major League history have a career OPS over .800 (and at least 3,000 PA), but four of those are active and haven’t had their numbers suppressed by end of career decline yet. Another one of those, Mickey Tettleton, spent 20 percent of his major league career playing positions other than catcher.

Perhaps we’ve all been spoiled by the presence of Piazza, Joe Mauer, and Jorge Posada over the last 20 years, but in reality, there are just a handful of big league catchers in the history of the game who have been able to both endure a career behind the plate and wield an impact bat at the same time.

By all accounts, Harper’s bat has a chance to be extremely special. If he makes it to stardom, it will be his offense that carries him there, not his work behind the plate. Moving him to the outfield will not be a waste of his value any more than it was when the Blue Jays moved Carlos Delgado to first base, the Astros moved Craig Biggio to second base, or the Braves moved Dale Murphy to center field. Harper can be plenty valuable as a power hitting athletic outfielder, and he can play until he’s 40 out there.

While the Nationals will be criticized by some for forfeiting some potential value, in the long run, it will probably be in his best interests, and I don’t blame the team for making that decision now, rather than wasting years of development trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.