Bryce Harper becoming an elite center fielder

Bryce Harper

(H. Rumph, Jr./AP)

The dissection of Bryce Harper’s rookie season has been ceaseless, both here and elsewhere, and yet a crucial part of his development may have been overlooked. Through his sensational offensive start, his second-half batting slump and recent batting resurgence, Harper has established himself as an outstanding defensive outfielder.

With the caveat that even the best defensive metrics are limited, Harper ranks fourth in the majors among center fielders according to one of the leading advanced stats. According to FanGraphs.com’s Ultimate Zone Rating, Harper has saved 28.5 runs per 150 games this year in center field alone. No National Leaguers rank ahead of him, and only Peter Bourjos, Lorenzo Cain and Craig Gentry score better in the majors.

The stat, commonly known at UZR, attempts to formulate a defender’s value through range, arm strength and errors. It is imperfect, to be sure, but no one believes the rating would be skewed to rank a poor or even average defender at the top of the league. For the the Nationals’ front office, the numbers bear out what they see – Harper is above-average with a chance to be elite.

Just three years ago, Harper became the most hyped prospect of all-time as a catcher. Now, at 19, he is perhaps a borderline elite outfielder.

“I think he has been phenomenal,” said third base coach Bo Porter, who instructs outfielders. “When you look at the maturation from where he started to where he’s at now, he’s getting to balls that early in the year, even if he got there, it was a struggle to get there. Now he’s getting to them easy. Which means that his routes are better and it’s a cleaner run.”

Porter said Harper has benefited from playing all three outfield positions in his rookie season. Rather than overloading him, moving around the outfield has helped Harper improve his reads. “The majority of the time on the corner, you’re dealing with one or the other,” Porter said. In center field, you’re dealing with both.” Learning how balls sliced in the corners helped him when he moved to center, where he has seen the majority of his action.

“I think the biggest change that I’ve seen is his stride, the way he goes after the ball, is not as a choppy,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “So he’s getting a little more feel for his jumps. He pays attention. I think the biggest thing is he’s finally learning how to control that tremendous amount of energy he’s got.”

Harper played only 33 games in center field in the minors. At the end of spring training this year, Harper appeared in a few games in center at Johnson’s insistence. There is some question as to whether Harper will maintain the speed, at his size, to stay in center long-term. The toll on Harper’s body, and the affect it could have on his offense over the long haul of a full season, is also a question. His arm is clearly good enough to play right.  

Still, his performance this year has showed the Nationals he could play there for at least the next couple years, especially if others, like Jayson Werth and Roger Bernadina this year, give him breaks in the corners. “He fits for me,” Johnson said.

For this season, Harper’s defense boosts his candidacy for National League rookie of the year. Reds third baseman Todd Frazier has Harper beat on every major offensive count – average, on-base percentage, slugging, home runs and RBI. Frazier seems to be the frontrunner, and he’s absolutely worthy. But Harper’s defense gives him 3.0 wins above replacement by FanGraphs’ formula, compared to Frazier’s 2.9. It’s a dead heat, at least by that metric.

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