Bryce Harper: Better in 2016?

Every writer and fan in America seems obsessed right now with Bryce Harper’s hypothetical-in-name-only free agency after the 2018 season. Clearly, to say Harper is an intriguing player and free agent is to break no new ground.

But three years in advance? There are more pressing concerns, such as: Is it possible to improve on a .330/.460/.649, 42 home run, 197 WRC+, 9.5 WAR campaign? This may strike some as an absurd proposition in many respects, but it is nonetheless a subject of discussion just before those glorious days whereon pitchers and catchers report to spring training, providing the first light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that is the offseason.

Federal Baseball has the goods on this prospect of Bryce Harper actually getting better this year, quoting the man himself:

I’ve always said every time I come into Spring Training or every time I come into the season, I can always get better, you can get better everywhere you play. [New first base coach] Davey Lopes definitely is going to help me on the bases, that’s going to be a lot of fun. Being able to pick the mind of [new manager] Dusty [Baker] if that’s outfield, if that’s hitting, if that’s with pitchers and things like that, and he’s a very good hitter. So, to learn from a guy like that is very exciting, very fun and just makes the game that much better.

This is clearly the correct approach for any player to be taking. Any player not looking to improve is setting himself up for decline.

Base running does seem like something that anyone can improve on, or at least work on to prevent age-related decline (not that Harper is worried about that to any significant degree yet). But while Harper’s base stealing has cratered since 2013, his base running is okay as he did put up +3.2 BSR in 2015; that could indeed get better, but it’s not bad and it’s also not what we’re really here for.

The real question is, can you really get better as a hitter after putting up a 197 wRC+? As mentioned at the outset, it seems highly unlikely. And if we mean statistical superiority (hint: that’s what we mean), rather than some nebulous, clubhouse-valued notion of driving in runs or advancing runners (which you always worry is what they mean), the numbers a better season would produce become only even more mind-boggling.

Paul Sporer’s player preview for Harper notes Harper’s “career-highs in homers per fly balls (27%) and batting average on balls in play (.369).” Harper did post a .352 BABIP in 2014 after .310 and .306 efforts in his first two seasons, so he does seem to be above-average on balls in play, but no one should bank on another .369 BABIP season. And if the goal is to improve Harper’s offensive numbers, the BABIP might have to grow to an even more significant degree. Were that to happen, using it to in turn project 2017 would only be the errand of an even greater fool than I.

Federal Baseball commentator d_c_guy also notes precedent to indicate that it will be hard for Harper to put up better numbers in 2016, or even similar ones: “Mantle did put up a wRC+ of 196 in 1961 and 192 in both 1962 and 1963. Mays never did it. Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols have never done it. Setting expectations at that level is cruising for disappointment.” Indeed it is.

With all of the evidence before you, I am not going to sit here and say Harper’s numbers will get better. That seems extremely unlikely.

There is another avenue, however, where Harper could theoretically improve, and that is the strikeout rate. 20% is certainly good enough these days, especially for a power hitter, but lower marks are possible. The thing is, cutting back on strikeouts while not losing power or walks is a tall task for anyone. Even Pujols, who managed K rates below 10% during some of his most successful seasons, had a hard time reaching Harper’s 2015 marks of 42 home runs and a 19 BB%, let alone the .369 BABIP, in those years. So, no, I’m not telling you to bank on this, either.

Otherwise, only even higher balls-in-play success (already discussed) or even more power could produce a better line for Harper in 2016, but we know he already set career-highs in those marks last year. Can those get better? Sure, but not in sustainable fashion. Better HR/FB rates are possible, but Harper’s 27% figure in 2015 was aided by 15 “Just Enough” home runs according to Hit Tracker Online. Or, if you consider Harper might hit more fly balls instead of more fly balls per home run, then you’re looking at a BABIP decline.

Everything is possible, but most things are unlikely.

The thing is, who really needs Harper to get better than he was last year? If you cut back his triple-slash marks by 10%, you still get a .297/.414/.584 season. I think everyone would take that…except Washington’s division rivals and their fans. Well, and perhaps Harper himself. After all, $600-million contracts don’t grow on trees; they grow on 10-WAR seasons in your early twenties.





hscer (pronounced h-s-seer) is also the Curator of MLB quizzes at Sporcle.com. You can join Dan Szymborski in following hscer on Twitter.

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brittle.fuz
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brittle.fuz

Great article. Awesome.
I don’t think it’s a reach to expect improvement given how young he is. I’d agree if he were 26+ but he’s still learning and dare I say, getting better. And he now has the influence of a manager famous for squeezing the best out of players. I think the big concern with him is not that he reached a peak at age 22 (turned 23 in Oct.) …but can he stay healthy again for a full season, he’s always been a bit fragile. Last year was the first time since 2012 that he amassed 500+ at bats.