What Can We Expect From Bryce Harper in 2017?
By all accounts, Bryce Harper’s 2015 campaign was historic. He produced offensive numbers unlike anything seen since Barry Bonds in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, with his .330/.460/.649 line equating to a 197 wRC+ and over 10 rWAR. It was the culmination of a half-decade of hype surrounding Harper, who first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old and won his first NL MVP award at age-22.
Then came 2016. Expectations have always been high for a phenom like Harper, and putting forth a season for the ages at such a precocious age only served to push those expectations further through roof. Rather than meet or surpass his newly set standard, Harper reportedly struggled through numerous neck, shoulder, and wrist maladies en route to a highly disappointing season.
Even when juxtaposed with his sensational 2015 season, Harper’s 2016 struggles still felt oddly familiar. Harper’s career thus far has been a demonstration of how All-Star caliber play from an incredibly young player can seem lacking. Harper might even be on a Hall of Fame track, with all-time greats like Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson among his most similar players through age-23 according to Baseball Reference, but Harper’s first five years have still somehow left some unsatisfied.
In 2016, Harper posted the lowest wRC+ of his career at 112. Most of that precipitous drop-off was due to a huge loss of power. In 2015, Harper paced the major leagues with a .319 isolated slugging, but that figure plummeted to .198 in 2016. Harper also suffered on balls in play, as his career-high BABIP of .369 in 2015 fell to .260 in 2016.
Why did so much of Harper’s power evaporate seemingly overnight? For one, he struck the ball with less authority. A hard-hit rate of over 40% in 2015 fell to 34% in 2016, while his soft-hit rate crept to career-high 19.8% (data courtesy of FanGraphs). This was corroborated by Statcast data, as Harper’s average exit velocity was just 89.5 mph in 2016, and 92.7 mph on fly balls and line drives. His 2015 figures of 91.4 and 94.6 were somewhat low for someone with such stellar power numbers, but were still far more solid than what he posted in 2016.
With exit velocity numbers that profile as fairly average, much of Harper’s lack of power can probably be tied to his own doing, though bad luck surely played some part. After seeing nearly 80% of his line drives fall in for hits in 2015, only 58% of his liners in 2016 went for hits, far below the league average of 68%. His BABIP on fly balls also fell over 50 points, a fall that can probably be explained in concert by Harper’s drop in hard contact and poor fortune.
So, as Harper enters his age-24 season, it feels like he is at a bit of a crossroads. He has so far posted two very strong offensive seasons, one phenomenal one, and a pair of injury-riddled seasons in which his offensive production was merely above average. With a bit of an injury history and a couple wild fluctuations, it’s hard to know what to expect going forward from one of the game’s most prominent faces and voices.
If projection systems are to be trusted on this matter, then Harper seems likely to split the difference between his most disappointing seasons and his most sensational. ZiPS pegs Harper for a 142 wRC+ and 4.4 WAR in 600 plate appearances, while Steamer forecasts Harper for a 147 wRC+ and 5.3 WAR in 600 plate appearances. PECOTA pegs Harper for 3.9 WARP in 576 plate appearances.
Given the prospect of one of the most hyped players in recent memory who has posted seasons all across the spectrum of performance, the algorithms have decided Harper is most likely to end up somewhere in the middle. This comes as no surprise: projections systems are conservative by nature, and are unlikely to forecast Harper to suddenly regain his superb 2015 form, but also unlikely to project him to run offensive numbers as relatively poor as his 2016 figures. Somehow, this answer too seems a tad unsatisfying, even if the most sensible response is to peg Harper as likely to fall somewhere between the extremes.
Is there any chance that Harper does return to the extreme that was 2015? For as poor as his power numbers looked, there was some parts of Harper’s game that trended in a positive direction in 2016. Harper made contact with pitches both in and out of the strike zone more often in 2016 than he did in 2015, leading to a career-high in overall contact rate and career-low swinging strike rate.
This is despite the fact that opposing pitchers gave Harper less to work with than ever. Harper saw the lowest rate of pitches in the zone of his career, and he responded by swinging at fewer pitches than ever. This meant that was able to keep his walk rate at a sky-high rate of 17.2%, while cutting his strikeout rate to a career low 18.7%.
So while Harper’s power figures plummeted, he did appear to be a more disciplined hitter at the plate. A Harper who combines this highly selective, patient approach at the plate with the home-run power he displayed in 2015 would in all likelihood be the front-runner for the MVP award.
If one accepts the premise that Harper’s injuries in 2016 contributed to his drop in power, as well as the premise that his growing patience as a hitter is sustainable, then a return to super-stardom appears attainable. In such a scenario, Harper would blow by the relatively modest projections that see him as a great but not dominant player. But with a legitimate injury history behind him, it’s not easy to see that scenario as likely. Regardless, Harper enters 2017 as among the most interesting players in the league. Will Harper ascend to historic heights again? We will begin to see in a matter of days.