Bryce Harper was hyped as the league’s next superstar from the time he was a high school sophomore. Scouts were enthralled with his raw power, athleticism, and ability to stick behind the plate. He earned his GED that year and entered junior college at 17 to get accustomed to using wood bats, with which he hit .443/.526/.987. As was expected, he was taken 1st overall by the Nationals in 2010, and was in the bigs by 2012.
Obviously, someone with that much hype will undoubtedly bring along lofty expectations. A player drafted out of high school spending just one full season plus a handful of games in the minors is extremely rare, and shows how advanced Harper was, and how much potential he has.
He flashed that potential through his first two years, but people still seem to doubt whether Harper will ever become the player he was supposed to be.
In his rookie year, in which he won the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Award, he posted a .270/.340/.477 line, with 22 home runs, a 121 wRC+, and 4.5 fWAR. That is the 86th best rookie season of all-time by fWAR, 31st since 1970, and 9th best since 2000.
wRC+ is an offensive measure, largely believed to be the best of its kind, that takes into account each different hit type, along with walks, and adjusts it for park and league differences. WAR combines offensive, defensive, and base running value (runs created and saved) and coverts it to wins, based on whatever the runs-per-win conversion is that season (usually 8-10 runs per win).
What makes that even more impressive, though, is that he was 19 years old when he put up those numbers. Many of the guys ahead of him had spent multiple years in the minors, and were into their early-mid 20s. Harper is one of just 102 players to ever play their rookie season at 19 years old or younger. Of those 102 players, Harper’s rookie season was the absolute best by WAR, one full win better than the next man-up, Edgar Renteria in 1996.
He followed up his historic debut with a strong sophomore season, in which he hit .274/.368/.486, with 20 homers, a 137 wRC+ and a 3.8 fWAR. The offense improved, but the fact that he missed some time, lost a little value on the shaky defensive metrics, and moved to a less-valuable corner outfield spot (see the fWAR link above for information on positional adjustments) caused his WAR to drop a small amount.
He was still able to put up the 23rd best age-20 season of all time by fWAR, and had he reached 600 plate appearances at the same pace (like most players ahead of him), he would have moved up to the 15th spot with 4.6 fWAR.
All together, through his first two seasons, he hit a 129 wRC+with 8.3 fWAR. That is the 6th best career through age-20 in MLB history, behind just Mel Ott, Mike Trout, Ty Cobb, Alex Rodriguez and Al Kaline. Pretty impressive stuff if you ask me.
But for various reasons — some logical, some not — many seem to be under the impression that Harper has had a slow start, or hasn’t been living up to his hype or potential. Sure, if you look at all rookie seasons, from all-time and at all ages, Harper’s start isn’t anything legendary. But you have to keep in mind how young and inexperienced he was when he did it, and I think that is where the disconnect comes into play.
Not all rookie seasons are made equal. An age 19 season — the best of all-time, as previously established — is more impressive than an equal, or even better, season at 23, or 25.
There is also the Trout Factor. Starting your MLB career the same year as a man who began his career with two 10+ WAR seasons in a row has the ability to overshadow even another historic debut. “The next best thing” having his production doubled by another rookie/sophomore can belittle what Harper has done by comparison. But as outlined above, when compared to an all-time list, Harper stacks up quite well.
The final factor is people likely overreacting to a slow campaign this year. He missed all of May, and all but one game in June, and even when he has played, he hasn’t been good. He currently holds a 98 wRC+ and 0 WAR, but small sample defensive metrics play a part in that.
And seemingly needless to say, 215 plate appearances is not enough to 1) draw conclusions, or 2) overtake what he did in his first two seasons. He is still recovering from the thumb injury, and history shows that injuries to the hand or wrist can linger for a while, and really impact the power output of a player. It is safe to assume that as the thumb continues to recover, so will his offensive production.
ZiPS projection system thinks he will post a 137 wRC+ for the rest of the year, matching his 2013 mark, and have him finishing with 1.1 fWAR in a 366 plate appearance season. While that may not be very impressive, keep in mind that because he has been worth 0 WAR so far, all of that value would be coming in his next 151 plate appearances. 1.1 WAR over 151 PA, paced out to 600 PA, is over 4 WAR once again.
The point of all this is that despite not being Mike Trout, Bryce Harper has still had an amazing start to what looks to be an even better career. His struggles this year can be pretty easily dismissed as a combination of small sample size, and recovering from a historically hampering injury.
Consider this: you could toss out any production he racks up for the rest of this season, take his WAR from 2012-2013, and stack it up against all-time careers through age-21 (as we did earlier with 19 and 20) and he still keeps that 23rd spot. That is if we completely eliminate what would normally be just as productive a season as he posted before. Heck, we can expand to age-22 and he still ranks 68th all time, with just his age 19 and 20 seasons.
Don’t worry about Bryce Harper. All signs point to him bouncing back anytime, and continuing his success. If he can balance his ability with his aggressiveness and passion, he will be well on his way to a long and storied career.