Philadelphia Phillies fans, unhappy with the performance of Bryce Harper, the high-priced free agent signed by the team for a then-record $330 million this offseason, serenaded him with boos Monday night after his third strikeout of the game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The displeasure for Harper is understandable. Monday night’s performance was his 19th game this season with multiple strikeouts — no other player has more than 16 — and he’s batting .222 with an .805 OPS entering Tuesday. It looked as if Harper turned a corner when he had a career-best five-hit outing against Colorado on April 19, but he is just 11 for 73 (.151) since then with 29 strikeouts in his last 21 games.
The good news is when Harper does make contact, he’s crushing the ball. His hard hit rate (46 percent), exit velocity (91.3 mph) and rate of barrels (12.4 percent), also known as hits on the sweet spot of the bat, are all on par with his 2015 MVP season. But his declining contact rate prevents him from reaping these rewards often.
When Harper was the unanimous choice for NL MVP, he was making contact 75 percent of the time. A year later he improved that to 79 percent, but ever since his contact rate has been on an alarming downward trajectory. In 2019 his contact rate is a mere 67 percent, the seventh lowest among hitters qualifying for this year’s batting title and several percentage points below league average (76 percent). The lack of contact has also created a spike in his strikeout rate, which is at a career-high 31 percent.
Even if Harper is able to reverse this trend, there is no guarantee that alone would solve his issues at the plate because opposing managers are shifting against him more than ever. Harper faced a shift more than half the time last season (350 plate appearances) and has seen that spike to nearly two-thirds of his plate appearances in 2019 (66.3 percent).
Shifting against Harper makes a lot of sense. The 26-year-old pulls the ball often (52 percent in 2019), resulting in a lot of grounders (51 percent), making it easier to deploy fielders in the right spot.
The results of the shift are not encouraging for Harper’s fans and do not portend a reversal any time soon: His weighted on-base average, a version of on-base percentage that accounts for how a player reached base instead of simply considering whether a player reached base, has declined from .448 to .307 because of the shift this season. That’s roughly the difference between a better version of Mike Trout (.428 wOBA in 2019), a two-time MVP and six-time Silver Slugger, and New York Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo (.307 wOBA).
This is clearly not the offensive production the Phillies are paying for, and it may prompt a re-evaluation of expectations for Harper’s 2019 campaign. However, it appears the Phillies are getting some value for their investment.
According to Dan Szymborski’s updated ZiPS projections, Harper is expected to be worth 4.9 wins above replacement this season, the same as his preseason projections (4.8 fWAR). The reason? Defense. Harper was woeful in the outfield last season, costing his former team, the Washington Nationals, 26 runs over 1,338 innings played. In 2019 he’s cost the Phillies one run over 339⅔ innings, a projected loss of four runs over the entire season. Fans saw that improved glove on Monday night when Harper made the potential game-saving play in the outfield at the top of the seventh inning.
However, that updated projection seems overly optimistic for a player expected to see downward revisions in every batting category that matters. For example, Harper’s end-of-season batting average estimate has declined from .271 in the preseason to .245 heading into Tuesday’s games. His projected OPS has also dropped from .944 to .892. And his projected strikeout rate has increased (24 to 27 percent) while his walk rate has remained flat (18 percent).
If we extrapolate Harper’s current season, using the shift rate and performance to date from 2019, he will more likely finish the season worth approximately 2.9 wins above replacement by year’s end. Looked at another way, the Phillies could be paying him $30 million this season for $24 million worth of production. That’s not a catastrophic decline this season, but it is not at all encouraging given the length of the contract.
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