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Bryce Harper could again be a fantasy baseball bust in 2017

Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper, the 2015 NL MVP, hit only .243 with 24 homers and 86 RBI in 2016. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Bryce Harper is considered one of the best hitters in baseball, making him a sought-after commodity in fantasy baseball drafts.

In 2015, Harper hit .330, tied for the the National League lead in home runs (42, with Colorado’s Nolan Arenado), and led in runs scored (118), on-base percentage (.460) and slugging percentage (.649). His on-base plus slugging (1.109) was almost double the league average (198 OPS+) after adjusting for league and park effects, the highest since Barry Bonds in 2004. Everyone took notice and Harper, unanimously, became the third-youngest player to win the National League Most Valuable Player award.

Bryce Harper begins his spring with a tape-measure home run

Then in 2016 he was a fantasy dud. He was the third player drafted but hit only .243 with 24 homers and 86 RBI, creating runs at a rate just 12 percent higher than average (112 wRC+), placing him 69th out of 146 hitters qualifying for the batting title. During his MVP year, Harper created runs at a rate that was close to double what is expected from an average player (197 wRC+).

In this year’s draft, Harper is still considered a top 10 player — his average draft position is ninth overall — and the latest projections from ZiPS and Steamer, adjusted for playing time, have Harper batting .283 with 31 home runs with 5.2 wins above replacement, the fourth-highest WAR among hitters. But that might be overly optimistic.

Players who have down years following historical seasons don’t often bounce back to previous levels. If we look for previous instances similar to Harper’s up-then-down years, limiting the group to those in a similar age range (in this case 28 or younger) since 2006, we see only 19 players with at least one season at 4.8 wins above average. (We’ll focus on that since fantasy value is focused on offensive performance only.) Those 19 players comprise the top five percent of performers over the past decade. None had as big a dip as Harper with a bounce-back year big enough to return him to MVP-caliber levels.

Prince Fielder came close. He hit 50 home runs in 2007, fueling his 4.6 wins above average, yet couldn’t get back to that in 2008 (1.1 wins). He would, however, produce 4.9 wins from his offense in 2009. No one else had as big a drop as Harper did from 2015 (7.7 wins over average through his offense) to 2016 (1.2) and still produced at MVP-caliber levels.

There are excuses. Harper says he knows “exactly why” he went from stud to dud in one season, but would not elaborate further. There’s heavy speculation he battled injuries in 2016, and the numbers appear to back that up. The rate of balls he made contact with classified as “hard hit” fell from 40.9 percent in 2015 to 34.1 percent in 2016, with a corresponding decrease in his average exit velocity (91.4 to 89.5 mph). But when you look at Harper’s career as a whole, the 2015 season is the outlier, not a harbinger of more greatness to come.

Harper might have just gotten lucky in 2015, too. According to FanGraphs.com, Harper produced a 1.238 slugging percentage on fly balls, line drives and infield flies in 2015 when the expected slugging percentage based on the batted-ball exit velocity was 0.876, much closer to what we saw from Harper in 2016 (0.818 SLG) on these hits.

Harper did improve his plate discipline in 2016, strikeouts accounted for 18.7 percent of his plate appearances compared to 26.3 percent in 2014 and 20 percent in 2015, but he also made more contact on pitches out of the zone than ever before in 2016. That’s great for avoiding strikeouts, but terrible for power hitters. He also swung at a career-high 68.2 percent of pitches in the strike zone, another bad sign.

If you are keen on taking Harper in the first round, temper expectations accordingly.

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