I admit when I first heard Bryce Harper would be representing the Washington Nationals at the 2018 All-Star Game I felt he was an undeserving choice, and I was even ready to write an article decrying him as one of the worst all-star selections in MLB history. But then I started to look at the numbers and changed my mind.
Harper isn’t doing himself any favors batting .215 with a 24 percent strikeout rate, his highest since 2014, but using batting average as a litmus test is an outdated way to quantify the value of a player. For example, Harper has 22 home runs (tied for ninth-most in the majors) and a 19 percent walk rate, two productive traits that are an asset to all MLB teams. In fact, his home run and walk rates are on par with what we saw from him in 2015, when he was unanimously named the National League MVP.
And it is because of those home runs and walks that Harper is creating runs at a rate that is 20 percent higher than the league average after accounting for league and park effects (120 wRC+), good enough to put him 12th in the league among the 33 NL outfielders who qualify for the batting title. Reserve all-star Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers, by comparison, has a wRC+ of 124. Houston Astros outfielder George Springer made the American League all-star team with an wRC+ of 114. Harper’s .353 weighted on-base average, a metric designed to combine all the aspects of hitting into one number, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value, also ranks him 12th in the league among NL outfielders, yet close enough to his all-star teammates to not look out of place. If you take out the luck factor for all NL outfielders, Harper’s expected wOBA (.388) based on the launch angle and exit velocity of balls put in play is the highest at the position in the league.
You can certainly make a case for other qualified outfielders to make the roster, but Harper’s eyesore of a batting average shouldn’t disqualify him from a spot.
There are also mitigating circumstances to explain Harper’s poor performance. For example, Harper has faced an infield shift in 177 of his 397 plate appearances (45 percent), resulting in a batting average on balls in play of just .232 and creating runs at a rate that is 62 percent lower than the league average after adjusting for league and park effects (38 wRC+). At some point, Harper has to adjust to this defensive tactic — it has becoming more prevalent in recent years — but it still helps explain the drop in his batting average. Consider Harper has hit almost half of his batted balls in play (49 percent) in excess of 95 mph, just a few ticks shy of his 2015 performance (51 percent), yet his overall batting average on balls in play has plummeted from .369 in 2015 to .225 in 2018. The league average for BABIP is .307 , making it easy to see how much the shift is costing Harper at the plate.
However, those missing base hits are mostly singles, as his percentage of extra-base hits per plate appearance for doubles, triples and home runs has been steady over the past four years.
If you want to discount Harper’s all-star nod because of a lack of singles and a depressed batting average, be my guest, but a closer look at Harper’s overall contributions suggests his performance is still valuable enough to be considered one of the league’s better and more valuable outfielders in 2018.
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