Let’s tackle the platoon issue first. Harper’s story has the same flow as Martin’s, albeit with massively different expectations. He’s shown substantial platoon splits, but it’s hard to draw any hard conclusions since he’s only seen lefties in 360 plate appearances. Martin is still young which led to the conclusion that he could learn to hit lefties passably. In Harper’s case, he’s incredibly young – he’ll be entering his age 21 season in 2014.
There’s no doubt that the Nationals will continue to play Harper against all but the toughest lefties. While Martin is a solid role player, Harper is a generational talent. He’ll be allowed to fail and flail against left-handers for many years before anyone gets serious about using him in a platoon.
As fantasy owners, what should we do with this information? Over his brief major league career, Harper has struck out about 6 percent more frequently against lefties and has hit for about half the power (.246 ISO vs. righties compared to .140 ISO vs. lefties). With all the numbers taken together, he’s shown a .388 wOBA and 147 wRC+ against right-handers compared to a .304 wOBA and 90 wRC+ against left-handers.
How fantasy owners manage him should depend on their league, roster depth, and where he bats in the lineup. For most everybody, the answer is probably to play him everyday and hope that he hits lefties better than last season. His 90 wRC+ against left-handers is similar to Josh Reddick‘s 92 wRC+. If you go back to Zach Sanders’ list and scroll down to the 75th name, you’ll find Reddick with a $0 valuation. In other words, Harper morphs into a replacement level fantasy asset against lefties – or at least he has to date.
We know that Harper will be pricey – just how pricey remains to be seen. Last season, Harper was drafted around 24th overall or for about $26. He delivered a healthy line over 497 plate appearances including 20 home runs, 11 stolen bases, and a .274 average. His 71 runs and 58 RBI were a disappointment and help explain why he was only worth $12.
Despite solid numbers, Harper played much of the season through a pair of injuries. Left knee bursitis began limiting him in late May, leading to a stint on the disabled list. The injury never fully healed, but he played through it. In September, hip inflammation limited his availability down the stretch. It’s possible that the hip inflammation resulted from Harper playing through the knee pain.
It’s quite possible that these injuries hampered Harper’s fantasy output to a significant degree. As the offseason turns towards draft pick advice, expect no shortage of columns extrapolating Harper’s healthy April over the course of a full season. A healthy Harper does have the potential to be a top fantasy asset, but his hard nosed style of play may make it difficult for him to remain healthy for 162 games.
At this early point in the offseason, I expect Harper to be priced similarly to last season. Since we don’t have much injury data for hard nosed 21-year-old outfielders, it will be up to you to determine how you want to price the injury risk associated with him.
Before we part, there is one other point that should be made. Despite the injuries, Harper’s average fly ball distance spiked to 299 feet. That was the 20th best average distance in 2013, nestled between Adam Lind and Chris Carter. This is obviously good news for fantasy owners. Harper had a relatively high home run to fly ball ratio last season (18.0 HR/FB), but players with similar batted ball distances had similar or higher HR/FB rates to Harper.
Below I’ve pasted in a handy spray chart from Brooksbaseball.net. There are two details that I would like to call to your attention. See if you notice them.
The first detail is the pretty distribution of red dots – home runs. Harper is able to drive the ball with power to all fields, which bodes well for his future as a power hitter. Barring injury, there’s no reason to doubt his ability to mash 30 or more home runs over a full season.
The second detail is the blob of black dots – outs – on the right side of the infield. Harper is clearly prone to the shift and such hitters tend to have trouble maintaining a league average BABIP. Harper does hit enough balls to the left side of the infield to make teams think twice about employing a shift. If you view other commonly shifted players like Brian McCann, Ryan Howard, or Carlos Pena, you’ll see that Harper has two to three times as many balls hit to the left side. I bring this to your attention because it’s unclear as yet if and how the shift will affect Harper’s outcomes.
Harper is an interesting case heading into 2014. There are so many things to be excited about in his profile including massive upside. But he’s also one injury away from earning the injury prone label, posted disappointing numbers in 2013, and has shown that he’s exploitable by left-handed pitching. At this point, you can either pay for upside and maybe wind up with an early round steal, or you could pass on the upside and count on a rival overpaying for average overall production.
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