Keeper League Would You Rather: Bryce Harper or Jason Heyward?

Right around this time of year I start to get that anticipatory giddiness that a six-year old gets in December when he starts counting down the days to Christmas. February 12 is the first day pitchers and catchers are allowed to report for Spring Training 2013 — just 27 days away. That’s less than a month. Calm, cool and collected on the outside; I’m doing back-flips on the inside. You feeling it too?  I thought so. This is our Christmas.

Spring training will start, the World Baseball Classic will whet our appetites, and then on March 31, the Rangers and Astros take the field and we’re off and running. And as if that’s not exciting enough, we still have our version of Christmas presents to unwrap. And by that I mean Draft Day. There’s really nothing better than getting a roster full of shiny new toys and then lining them up next to those of your friends and see who made out the best.

But like that six-year old, I simply can’t contain my enthusiasm. I need to know what I’m getting and I need to know now. I don’t need to know everything, but I need to know little something to tide me over; to keep me from going totally off-the-wall. And that’s why I play in keeper leagues. I like walking into the draft with a little somethin’ somethin’ in my pocket. It’s like a warm blanket and a hot cup of cocoa on a cold, rainy day.

The only problem I have is making those tough decisions of who on my roster stays and who heads back into the player pool. Which, of course, brings us to yet another edition of Keeper League Would You Rather. So put on those baseball thinking caps of yours and let’s get to it because this one is a tough one.

Assuming the cost of protecting them is exactly the same, would you rather keep Bryce Harper or  Jason Heyward?

Most people will immediately default to Harper because of the hype and the fact that he’s almost three years younger, but in comparing the two players, the answer really isn’t so simple. Take a look at Bill James’ projections for each of them in 2013:

Bryce Harper 659 24 0.272 65 105 20
Jason Heyward 641 26 0.272 82 92 20

If James has it right, then you’re looking at close to even production here. Is Harper’s age the tiebreaker? True, he won’t turn 21 until October, but it’s not like Heyward is some old geezer here. He’s only 23-years old, set to turn 24 at the end of August. If we are to believe that position players reach their physical prime at age 26 or 27, wouldn’t you prefer the more immediate impact? After all, it’s very rare that you keep a player for his entire career. Things happen — injuries occur, trades are made, life throws you all sorts of curveballs even in the fantasy world. You always want to win now even if you are building for the future and while both offer you the latter, does Heyward offer you a better chance at the former?

People talk about Harper’s potential ceiling; how you can tell just by the sound of the bat hitting the ball that he’s got 35-40 home run power lurking in there. There is little doubt that his skill set is off the charts. But think back to 2010 and remember that they were saying similar things about Heyward. Heck, I even heard that someone once made the comparison to Ted Williams. But it has taken Heyward a couple of seasons to get himself to where he is at right now. He dealt with the pressure of coming in as a 20-year old, he battled injuries, and now he looks primed for a breakout. Harper has started on the same path and while we can’t say that he’s going to get hurt, he still has his own dues to pay and growing pains to get through.

Obviously you can tell that in this debate, I am leaning towards Heyward. Both were considered stud prospects and the best of their time. Both have great power with rock solid speed blended in. Both are young enough to want keep for years to come. But Heyward has some valuable experience under his belt and appears much closer to reaching his peak. If I’m looking at my team in five-year increments, I want the guy who will be at his peak in that time frame. Watching a player grow into it is obviously an exciting ride, but I’m looking for more immediate gratification in my fantasy league. Maybe I’m going against the grain here, but I think Heyward gives me the better chance right now.

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Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over 10 years on a variety of websites. In addition to his work here, you can also find him at his site,, Fantasy Alarm, RotoWire and Mock Draft Central. Follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy or for more direct questions or comments, email him at

47 Responses to “Keeper League Would You Rather: Bryce Harper or Jason Heyward?”

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  1. TheOneWhoKnocks says:

    Its not even close for me personally.

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  2. JTGrace says:

    Without a doubt it would be Heyward.

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  3. Steve says:

    I don’t believe many owners will have to choose between these two players in keeper leagues. If you own both, you are likely to keep both.

    If you are in an auction league, Harper may well have cost significantly less than Heyward and thus you are keeping Harper.

    Ditto for a snake where Harper was likely a lower round pick.

    If you’ve just had these guys for a while (i.e. dynasty or what have you), again you probably can just keep both.

    How about comparing guys who are more middle round material and make for tougher debate?

    Aramis or Middlebrooks/Moustakas?

    Kipnis or Phillips?

    Wainwright or Medlen?

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    • jesse says:

      yeah but duh, you can trade.

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      • Steve says:

        What does that have to do with my point?

        Great, you can trade. You’re still keeping both guys if you have thenm more often than not. They’re both going to be near the top of your keeper range.

        The other comparisons I listed are more like your 6th or 7th keepers.

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    • akaufman23 says:

      The question is pretty relevant if you are drafting a keeper league this year.

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  4. RC says:

    “If we are to believe that position players reach their physical prime at age 26 or 27, wouldn’t you prefer the more immediate impact?”

    I think this comment is misleading, in that it assumes that both players will reach the same numbers during their “prime”. It seems to me that if their projections are almost identical now, and that players tend to get better as they climb toward their prime, then you would actually expect Harper to have the better prime years, since he’s already at Heyward’s level and additional 3 years away from his prime. If we expected both players to improve linearly to age 28 (not realistic, but works for this illustration), then you could expect the same production from both players until Heyward reaches age 28. He would then plateau (or decline), while Harper would have an additional 3 YEARS of improvement.

    Based on this, it doesn’t seem to be a very close comparison to me. If you were in a keeper league with a time limit on keepers and only looking at the next 3-4 years, it’s a toss up. If you are looking at keeping the player for their entire career, it’s Harper all day long.

    (This coming from a Braves fan with an unhealthy love for Jason Heyward)

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    • Ben G says:

      I was typing the exact same comment as RC when suddenly my browser refreshed – I started by quoting the same line, then made the same case, then when the browser refreshed it was lost. When the page refreshed I saw RC’s comment was up, and I actually thought it was my comment for the first 5 or 6 sentences. Scary. So I’ll continue where he left off.

      “You always want to win now even if you are building for the future and while both offer you the latter, does Heyward offer you a better chance at the former?”

      No, actually, both give you roughly an equal chance at the former, but Harper offers more for the latter.

      “But it has taken Heyward a couple of seasons to get himself to where he is at right now. He dealt with the pressure of coming in as a 20-year old, he battled injuries, and now he looks primed for a breakout. Harper has started on the same path and while we can’t say that he’s going to get hurt, he still has his own dues to pay and growing pains to get through.”

      Or not. The linear projection that RC uses, while admittedly not realistic, is a much more reasonable estimate than “estimating” that Harper will suffer similar growing pains to the ones that Heyward faced. Comparing these two players and assuming that since one had a tough second year the other one will, too, is irresponsible, no less irresponsible than it would be if I were to claim that since Mike Trout was the (should-be) MVP when he was 20, Bryce Harper should be awesome next year. Neither is based in any type of reason, but each is a different extreme. Harper’s second year was about as bad as it could have been. I’d love to be able to put a number on the chance that Harper has a second year as bad as Heyward did, but I can’t – if I could, it would probably be very low. There’s an equally low chance that Harper puts up an MVP caliber year. We have no idea, because despite their numbers being similar they’re not the same player, so either one could improve significantly more than the other. Since guessing which one will improve more would be based on nothing but conjecture, let’s go with RC’s linear model.

      A few more points in Harper’s favor:
      In Heyward’s second year, he suffered from a terrible BABIP. However, using the typical rough estimate of LD% + 12%, we see that Harper’s never put up a season where his BABIP was below the estimate; in fact, during his rookie year he significantly overachieved in that department. Harper, on the other hand, had a LD% of 22.5. Of the 39 players with an equal or better LD%, only 10 had a BABIP lower than Harper’s .310, while 20 had a BABIP of .329 or better.
      K%, which tends to improve with age, particularly if a player is young for his league, was very similar for these two players during their rookie years: Harper’s was 20.1, Heyward’s was 20.5. Surprisingly, Heyward’s has gotten worse. This doesn’t change the fact that odds are Harper’s will improve over time, another reason to expect a better batting average out of Harper. In terms of BB%, oddly enough, Harper’s was better in 2012. I expect Heyward to get back on track with his obscene ability to take a walk next year, but Harper should see some improvement as well.

      I just don’t see any way to compare these two players and come up with the conclusion that Heyward is going to be better over the next few years without making one of two unreasonable assumptions: that Heyward and Harper will have identical peaks, or that Harper will suffer some sort of severe step back next year while Heyward won’t. It could happen, but the percentages aren’t in your favor.

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    • CFG-250 says:

      I agree. Heyward already has been through a sophomore slump and bounced back big last year, but with his worst walk rate and K rate. I think Harper is way ahead of the curve and has better speed than Heyward and is likely to hit for a higher average, so right now and in the future, I’m going with Harper.

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      • antonio bananas says:

        “with his worst walk and k rate” is kind of misleading. He completely changed his approach and ended up adding a lot of power. I don’t care that he’s striking out a little more and walking a little less, he went from a high OBP 17-20 HR guy to a 30 HR guy. At some point, he might be able to mix the two and have a high OBP 35-40 HR year.

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  5. dirck says:

    I was able,through luck and good trading ,to get both Harper and Stanton on one of my dynasty teams . I dream at night about the two of them in their primes on my team .

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  6. rotowizard says:

    I actually have this same issue in a auction dollar keeper league where I have Harper at $26 and Heyward at $31. Obviously I’m keeping both but if push came to shove and I could only keep one I think I would lean towards Harper as I feel the upside is greater in a 5×5 league. He has a chance to hit for higher average than Heyward with similar power numbers, I also feel that he is a better bet to sustain higher stolen base totals than Heyward. But the post is spot on in that it is a very difficult decision and I feel it would vary depending on league types.

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    • Steve says:

      This was exactly my point above. You’re keeping both.

      If you absolutely had to choose though, it’s Harper. Younger and cheaper.

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  7. Evil Empire says:

    I am not a fan of Bill James RBI projections for Harper, and if that number were boosted closer to the number I would expect, then the difference between the two gets much larger. In 2012 there were only 4 players that hit at least 24 HRs (the number of HR projected for Harper by James) that had 65 RBI or fewer. Jose Batista, Mike Napoli, Trevor Plouffe, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. In the case of all four of those players, the number of plate appearances those players had are MUCH lower than the projected 659 for Harper (399, 352, 465, 448). In 2011, there was only 1 player to do so, Corey Hart. He too saw fewer plate apperances (551).

    While HRs is not a lock solid indicator for RBI, the numbers show that if Harper were to have only 65 it would be quite unusual. Add in there that due to roster changes Harper may hit lower in the order than the second spot, (where he spent most of the year last season) and that number could increase dramatically.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love Heyward. But Harper appears to be in a higher class.

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  8. Mal Maher says:

    If you even think Heyward you should consider a full medical workup. Harper was 19 last year. This guy is just a freak. NOW if you said Harper or Trout you’ll have some debate. Trout is our modern day Willie Mays/Mickey Mantle. Gotta roll Trout there but they are the two best young guys since Arod & Griffey.

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    • MrMojoRisin says:

      Mays and Mantle? Slow your roll. It’s little early for that seeing how Fred Lynn had Mike Trout’s rookie year, but he never became Mays nor Mantle.

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    • Howard Bender says:

      How is there much more of a debate between Harper and Trout? Harper’s first year didn’t even come close to Trout’s. A comparison to Heyward’s equally hyped first season is a much closer comparison.

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      • DBA says:

        You’re right – Harper’s first year was much, much better than Trout’s first year. Which was 2011.

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      • Howard Bender says:

        Splitting hairs there a little aren’t you DBA? So you’re telling me that his 135 plate appearances, which don’t even count as a rookie year for MLB, are what should be compared to Harper’s 597 PA last year? Come on. If I wrote that in an article this site would probably explode.

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  9. eckmuhl says:

    Surprising to find a couple of James’ Projections that are actually relatively bearish. If healthy all year, I think both those guys have a good chance to surpass those numbers. I especially would take the over in the HR department. Keeper wise, if it was one year, tough call. Long term right now you would have to say hold on to Harper. But I have no idea why you would cut either in a keeper format. That would be one stacked team.

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  10. Tom B says:

    I don’t see how Heyward is even involved in this conversation. The ONLY person in baseball that you would even consider keeping over Harper (for equal value) is Trout at this point in time.

    The only consistent thing about Heyward is that his walk rate is dropping like a rock.

    The mere fact that the Bill James projections are nearly identical… when Heyward is going into year 4 and Harper is going into year 2… should have answered the original question for you.

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  11. chuck in Chino says:

    This a clown question, right??? Harper all day… Maybe we should ask, Harper or Trout? Although it is somewhat tongue in cheek — lets see what both players do in their sophomore year, then check back on this post.

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  12. MLB Rainmaker says:

    A couple stats to frame the quesiton

    1) Heyward’s got a rough L/R split. Both players aren’t great L-on-L, but Heyward’s problem’s are more pronounced with a 75 difference, and an ISO 130 pts lower. Guarantee he’s seeing a lefty in the 8th or 9th.

    2) Harper’s K% looks to be due to over-aggressive approach, with higher swing percentage, higher swing percentage outside the zone, and higher swinging strike than Heyward. Plus, Heyward’s number have gone the wrong direction in both categories each of the last three years.

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  13. Jon L. says:

    Both players projections for next year look very similar, but one is much younger.

    One player’s ability is hyped much more than the other’s, partly because he appears to have greater power and greater speed.

    I would take Harper, and none of your arguments even suggest choosing otherwise. The best you could argue is that you might get marginally more value for Heyward this year, but that’s just more evidence that Harper’s peak will be greater.

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  14. bender says:

    bill james projections suck

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  15. Optimist says:

    This was the worst article on fangraphs in a while.

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  16. antonio bananas says:

    I’m a Braves fan and I really like Heyward. I think James is off on Heyward’s HR. Heyward changed his approach and became more aggressive, I see him as more of a 30 home run guy right now.

    People are saying “they have similar projections and one is going into year 4 and one into year 2″ well, look at Heyward’s rookie year vs Harper’s. One year difference in age is all. They’re a lot closer in ability than the huge Harper fans think.

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  17. cwgibson120 says:

    Both will be in my outfield for years to come!

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  18. Undocorkscrew says:

    The Harper fans here remind me a ton of the 2011 Heyward fans……

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    • Howard Bender says:

      Thank you. I was waiting to see if anyone else noticed or would actually say it.

      The irony of so many FanGraphs readers putting so much stock in a short track record, a small sample size of professional at-bats and showing so much confidence in the “eye-test” of scouts that the numbers are supposed be more reliable than….

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      • DBA says:

        If you’re going to compare Harper’s 2012 to a Heyward year, it should be 2009. That’s the appropriate age comp. IE, Heyward got a cup of coffee in AAA while Harper was a full time player at the major league level – and a good one.

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      • Howard Bender says:

        Oh DBA, now you’re just being silly. If you want to compare first full years you compare first full years. You don’t count cups of coffee at the end of a season. Your point of comparing a full season’s worth of plate appearances to less than two month’s worth makes absolutely no sense.

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      • Stuckey says:

        Howard, I’m afraid you’re simply wrong here. Scouts always emphasize age vs. level.

        There isn’t a professional scout that would argue age 23 numbers are equivalent to age 20 numbers. Age matters. A lot.

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      • Stuckey says:

        Of course, you have to factor in the minor league numbers too. But the more relevant comparison remains age 20 vs. age 20, not first MLB vs. first MLB.

        It’s tough to compare MLB numbers with AAA or AA numbers, so we are probably better off using MLB to MLB, but you need to acknowledge the major caveat of age difference. This comparison isn’t as apples-to-apples as you seem to think it is.

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  19. short says:

    Got both. Keeping both. My team isn’t stacked with great position players and both of these are in the top six. I can keep both because Harper qualifies for CF. If he didn’t and they were both RF’s I’d go with Harper for the reasons RC states and just a team preference. If it’s all the same I pick players from teams I like. Watching Harper play is something else…I just like having the guy.

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  20. Freddy T says:

    If you’re sure that the league or at least your participation in it is going beyond 5 years I would say Harper but if you’re looking at it for like 2 or 3 years then Heyward is not a bad choice. I see what Bender is saying about experience and entering his prime years and he may be right if Harper does have early career issues as Heyward has. I’ve seen articles talking about a possible/probable regression for Trout. What makes everyone here think that Harper is only going to get better in year two? Absolutely no regression and 100% certainty that he will improve? Is he better than Trout? Doesn’t seem to be.

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  21. Mberk says:

    So…if I’m in a keeper league, and can protect Heyward at $25, am I an idiot if I don’t do it?

    We can keep 7 players, and I have qite a few no-brainers: Trout ($10!!), Chapman ($7), Matt Harvey ($6), and Rizzo ($6). Less of no-brainers are Adam Eaton at $13 and Brett Jackson ($7).

    Then there’s Heyward and McCuthchen ($32), and some tough calls on veterans like Yadier ($7), LaRoche ($10), Carlos Quentin ($6), and Prado ($12).

    This thread is making me feel like I have to keep Heyward, but I feel like there’s a decent chance I could get him back for a similar price in the auction.

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    • Bill says:

      Mberk, it’s not a hard choice.

      You are right on your no brainers. The only potential non no brainer of that list is Harvey, since the Mets won’t be a good team, limiting his value, but I still say keep him and don’t think twice. McCutchen is a no brainer as well, as he is a top 10 player overall, and you won’t get him back for 32 (wouldn’t be surprising if he is the single best player on the open market). That makes 5. Then you have to pick two of the following 3: Heyward, Prado, Eaton. I would have a hard time not keeping Heyward and Prado. Eaton isn’t proven, and you already have Trout for steals, and McCutchen is talking about running more this year too. If you are hurting for steals that much after the draft, you can easily shop Heyward to achieve that (or for saves, or whatever need you have). It would be hard to believe Heyward would go for only 25 again

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  22. Bill says:

    Now I have a difficult debate. Points league, already keeping McCutchen, Votto, Pedroia, CC (have to keep one pitcher, it’d either be him or Scherzer or Papelbon). 5th keeper, deciding between Harper and Jose Bautista. Remember, points league, not 5×5. The max I could keep Harper through is his 3rd year (so this year and next, same for Bautista obviously). Who do I keep?

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