Bryce Harper: A Catch-34

Yesterday was Leonys Martin day. In the introductory paragraph of that article, I noted that Martin was worth roughly the same $12 as Bryce Harper. So for today, let’s talk about Harper.

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.

Harper Spray

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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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, MLB Trade Rumors, and The Fake Baseball. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

15 Responses to “Bryce Harper: A Catch-34”

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  1. Edwin says:

    Is there an issue with the spreay chart? Maybe it’s my internet browser, but I’m not seeing any spray chart in the body of the post. I can find a link if I hover my mouse over the area, but that’s it.

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  2. jerusalem-artichoke says:

    I think 1 season with 2 seemingly unrelated injuries is far too little info to tag a 21 yo with injury prone label. I’ll take an athletic young player with 1 season of injuries over a 29 plus year old player like prince fielder with an excellent health track record but real signs of physical declining production due to age/weight.

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    • David says:

      Well I think the hip and knee were related. It all stemmed from that collision with the wall. On the bright side, Harper was much more intelligent around walls for the rest of the season. And it’s an impact injury, so there’s really no sign of him being injury prone unless he continues crashing into walls.

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      • cass says:

        Unless permanent damage has been done, which seems quite possible.

        He seemed fearful of the wall afterwards. I know I saw him miss a few balls most outfielders would have gotten due to an abundance of caution when near the wall.

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    • David says:

      That was only at first after returning. I know his first few games back,he was clearly scared. But by August/September, he was pretty normal around the walls.

      And I’ve seen nothing at all to suggest there was permanent damage done. Bursitis is not permanent.

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  3. wiggly says:

    I don’t know all of the FG stats well, but 18 HR/FB is a pretty impressive number. When he hits it does the ball explode into 18 little pieces?

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  4. Pauly says:

    I own him in a keeper league. payed a pretty price though, 1st rounder. Am I crazy for considering throwing him back? I’m not sure he falls to the second round next year…

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      That depends on the league and the opportunity cost. Historically, who have been the first couple picks over the last few seasons? (please note the year)

      Who would you keep instead of Harper and in what round?

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      • Pauly says:

        I think top tier guys that will be available next year are Cano, Tulo, Ortiz, Jones, Beltre, Upton, A-Gonz, Rios…

        I’ve got Crush at 14, Machado at 10 and Jose Fernandez at 22. Can only keep 4.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        The top guys you list are all lower risk than Harper, although he does have a higher ceiling than all besides maybe Cano and Tulo. I’d still bet on most of them outperforming him in 2014.

        Those are 3 good keepers, but who are #5 and 6 on your list? That could help determine if you keep Harper. As a tie breaker, remember that if Harper does realize his ceiling, you’ll have him locked in through his peak.

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  5. Gee's Up, Hoes Down says:

    How could Harper be an early round steal? He’s probably going in the second round because someone will pay for his upside and name brand. Unless he somehow trades places with Mike Trout, I think his ceiling value is his draft value.

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