Every baseball season brings new data and revisions to reputations. But this year has been especially revealing about Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, two of the game’s most scrutinized players. Strasburg is rocketing up the game’s “respectrum,” while Harper, one year from free agency, now shows a few cracks.
Just 17 months ago, when Strasburg signed a seven-year, $175 million extension, many Nationals fans were pleased. But they also wondered: “Why Strasburg? Why not save all that money to keep Bryce?” The day the Strasburg deal was announced, Harper was not only the reigning National League MVP but was on pace for 51 homers and 134 RBI with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.095 in 2016.
At that moment, Strasburg was the pitcher famous for his injuries and a need for gentle handling. Harper seemed on the verge of finishing high in MVP voting for years to come in the NL, just as Mike Trout had done in the American League.
How times change. Now, Strasburg seems relatively durable and Harper might not be. Over the past five years, Strasburg ranks 30th among MLB pitchers in games started with 139. That’s two fewer than Clayton Kershaw, the same as David Price and more than Felix Hernandez (137).
In those same five years, Harper ranks 90th among position players in games played, just 126 per season, and now he says he should have skipped quite a few more games in 2016, when he had a balky shoulder. That’s almost six weeks out per season.
Strasburg showed he can be dominant in the postseason, although in a losing cause. He rose to the occasion to start Game 1 against the Cubs when Max Scherzer couldn’t, then pitched sick to save the season in Game 4. His ERA: 0.00, bringing his three-start postseason career ERA to 0.47.
Harper, for the fourth time, failed to lead his team out of the first round and has career playoff batting average and OPS marks of .211 and .801. By the high standards of right fielders, he’s Mr. Average in October.
The Nats look smart for signing Strasburg long-term at roughly the time he reached maturity on the mound. Since June 2015, the Nats are 53-14 in Strasburg’s 67 starts, an almost ridiculous winning percentage of .791. But Strasburg looks sharp for including opt-out clauses after 2019 and 2020. A man of habit who prefers familiar surroundings, he probably will stay in D.C. But either way, both sides look wise.
The Nats also look judicious for ignoring the advice of those (such as me) who said offering Harper a 10-year, $400 million extension to sign through age 35 was reasonable. He might decline. But at least you offered.
Now I wonder, as I do every offseason, who is Bryce Harper really?
In the past five years, in those 126 games, Harper averaged 26 homers, 72 RBI and a .288 average. Over the past nine years, Adam Lind averaged 128 games, 20 homers, 70 RBI and hit .273. That’s selective stat mining. Harper is much better, in part because he walks so much. But Harper and Lind in the same sentence?
Ryan Zimmerman and Harper have both averaged 128 games over their 12 and six full years, respectively. Harper averages 84 runs, 25 homers, 70 RBI, a .285 batting average and 4.35 Wins Above Replacement (as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com). Zimmerman averages 73 runs, 21 homers, 78 RBI, a .279 batting average and 3.0 WAR.
Once again, Harper is better. But by how much? The past four years, Anthony Rendon has averaged 4.28 WAR, just a hair lower than Harper over almost any time frame you pick. Again, Harper is extremely good. But $400 million fabulous?
Analyzing Strasburg and Harper, and their futures, affects what the Nats should do this offseason. With Strasburg’s stellar work, the Nats now seem to have the best two aces on any staff in MLB; their winter priority should be adding a third starter to join them from 2018 through 2021, because all could still be Nats then.
The Nats need someone more pressure-proof than Gio Gonzalez and more gifted than workhorse Tanner Roark, who’s a fourth starter on a champion. In a seven-game National League Championship Series or World Series, your ideal fully rested rotation is 1-2-off-day-3-4-1-off-day-2-3. See how important Mr. No. 3 is? That can’t be Gio.
Perhaps the Nats shouldn’t worry about Harper. Let the phone ring. His agent, Scott Boras, is creative and listens to his clients. If Harper wants to make D.C. his long-term home, a deal probably could be worked out — akin to Strasburg’s in structure, with opt-outs, but at or above Scherzer’s $30 million annual level.
But that’s a sub-$300 million deal, not the gossip number of $400 million.
One thing is sure: Someday, with hindsight, the Nats will be very glad or very sad about their decision on whether to be an aggressive bidder for Harper.
In optimistic moods, my best guesstimates of players who approximate Harper’s future are Robin Yount, Ken Griffey Jr., Paul Molitor, Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell and maybe Derek Jeter. From ages 26 to 35, their average WAR was about 46. What’s that worth? Yes, about $400 million, according to FanGraphs.com. No one said this was going to be easy.
In those 10-year periods, Griffey played just 121 games a year, and Molitor 126. But when they played, watch out. So, Harper’s injury pattern, if it persists, doesn’t have to keep him out of Cooperstown. But this analysis misses the many players who were deluxe at 26 but then tapered off.
Such as whom? Such as Zimmerman. At 26, the age when Harper will be a free agent, Zim had averaged 4.8 WAR in his previous five years, even better than Harper’s past five years. But injuries, including a right shoulder so bad that he had to switch positions, have held Zimmerman to an average of 1.7 WAR for the past seven years.
A new factor entered the equation this season: The outfield is now the Nats’ most overloaded area of talent. An injury to Adam Eaton, who’ll be back in 2018, let Michael A. Taylor become the proud new owner of center field; counting the playoffs, Taylor had 21 homers, 61 RBI, 17 steals and a .819 OPS in three-quarters of a season. Also, Victor Robles developed so fast that he became the youngest player in the majors and made the playoff roster.
When the Nats need that new starting pitcher, plus a better catcher than Matt Wieters (-0.6 WAR), the team must weigh how much it can offer Harper, the 126-game outfielder, vs. how it might be able to spend those hundreds of millions of dollars on Rendon or free agents.
Every time the thought of Harper being a Nat through 2028 crosses my mind, I think of the Capitals’ 13-year extension with Alex Ovechkin that bounds him to the team — and, in turn, bounds the team to his playing style — through 2021. Since then, the Caps have flopped or fizzled in the playoffs 10 times. Ovechkin isn’t a primary cause of the problem, but he’s at the center of a failing ecosystem.
The Nats have had four shots at October with Harper. At least Ovi has duplicated his regular season numbers in the postseason. Harper hasn’t. Harper is a good teammate but also an endless self-branding campaign. What mural will be painted on his next pair of cleats?
Like early Ovi, Harper sometimes sets an upper limit on how demanding any manager can be. Harper doesn’t jake on a grounder, or play Ted Williams-level attention in the outfield, very often. But once every couple of weeks is enough to undermine attempts at building a team with a fanatical attention to detail.
Just like Ovechkin, Harper is not a problem but, after six full seasons in the majors, he is also not a leader. The Great Eight and Kid Harp lead by their goals and homers, by sliding fist pumps or hair flips when things go great. Is that part of being great in the regular season but not quite good enough in the playoffs?
In this century, D.C. pro teams have had 16 chances to advance beyond the round of eight in the playoffs. The Caps and Nats had 10 of those chances. D.C. is 0 for 16. The odds on that are about 65,536 to 1. Misery and mystery combined.
This postseason, Strasburg showed he’s probably a key to reversing the misery. At the same time, Harper remained part of the mystery.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.