Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper Still Productive in a Down Season

Sep 11, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) hits a sacrifice fly against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 11, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) hits a sacrifice fly against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper has fallen off after a historic 2015 season. Despite his struggles he’s still been a productive player.

Last season Bryce Harper fully tapped into his enormous potential and established himself as one of the best players in baseball. Harper hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 homers, 118 runs scored, and 99 RBI. He led the National League in on base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs,  and runs scored.

He posted a fWAR of 9.5, a wRC+ of 197, and a wOBA of .461, once again leading the National League in each category. He absolutely dominated baseball, drawing comparisons to Ted Williams and Barry Bonds for his single season performance.

This season Harper has struggled by the lofty standards he set for himself with last season’s brilliance. In 567 plate appearances he’s put up a slash line of .249/.379/.460 with 24 home runs, 78 runs scored, and 80 RBI. He’s currently put up 3.9 fWAR, has a wRC+ of 119, and a wOBA of .353. Respectable numbers, but not anywhere near what he did last season.

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Harper is a polarizing player due to his immense talent, media coverage, and brash personality. Harper fans may be panicking, worried about his long-term outlook, while Harper haters are relishing these current struggles. His performance is naturally a magnetic for overreaction.

So, how bad has he really been?

Allow me to be overly simplistic for a moment in evaluating the objective of baseball. When batting during a baseball game the hitter’s ultimate goal is to not make an out. Throughout the course of the game situations arise where the goal becomes different depending on context, but lets ignore that for a second. The goal for a batter is to not make an out, whether that’s through a base hit or a walk. Harper still does that at a high level.

Harper reaches base in 37.9 percent of his plate appearances. That’s 12th best in the National League. Is that up to the standard Harper set last season? Of course not, but it’s still very good.

He may be hitting just .249, but he’s making up for it by getting walked a ton. Harper’s walk-rate is 17.3 percent, best in the entire league. He’s not hitting the way most would expect him to, but he’s clearly still providing value at the plate.

If his power numbers weren’t down he’d even be having a fairly good season. The drop off in value lies in the slugging percentage, not the batting average. Harper’s slugging percentage is down .189 points from last season and he has 18 fewer homers with 19 games left in the regular season. His .460 slugging percentage is just 31st best in the NL.

There has been debate about whether or not Harper has been playing hurt for large portions of the season and conversation about how team’s are pitching him carefully. Those are the two primary theories regarding why he hasn’t been as dominant in 2016.

In a July 10th article from Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post  Harper refused to make excuses and expressed that his desire to win outweighs any personal goals.

"“The main goal right now is winning ballgames,” Harper said. “But for me personally, possibly going .280 with 20/20 [20 home runs and 20 stolen bases] and going to the playoffs and trying to do the best I can.”"

In that same article, Harper expanded on some of his issues and how he is trying to correct them and still make a positive impact. It seems that his confidence has never wavered.

"“This is going to sound bad and people are going to look at it and say it sounds bad, but I’m really good at the plate,” Harper said. “Of course guys have holes in their swings, but I don’t feel like I do. When I go up to the plate, I don’t want to think I have a hole or anything like that. I think I can hit any pitch.”“I’ve chased some bad pitches this year that I didn’t chase last year,” Harper said. “So I think I’m just trying to do certain things that help my game. When I get locked in, when everybody sees that I get locked in, I’m hitting the ball the other way, I’m walking, doing things I need to do to get on base — I feel like when I’m in those modes, nobody can get me out.”"

In August, Harper even started to look like the Harper of 2015. In 22 games he hit .310/.398/.536 with 3 homers and 8 doubles. September hasn’t been as strong, but 19 games still remain in the season’s final month.

So, the sky is not falling. Harper’s value has not “plummeted”. The Yankees (or some other big market team) are likely still itching to give him a record setting contract when he becomes a free agent after the 2018 season.

The guy is still just 23 years old. He’s not even close to hitting his prime and he’s already produced one of the best single seasons in baseball history. Even great players have things they need to work on as their career progresses.

Bryce Harper is still a good and productive baseball player. He’s just having a down year. I can live with a player putting up 4 win season in a year where most consider their performance extremely disappointing.

Despite his personal success last season the Nationals still failed to make the playoffs. The team has performed well around him this season, giving Washington a comfortable nine game lead in the NL East.

That means Harper will most likely have a chance to redeem himself in the postseason. Before the 2015 season he asked where his ring was, in reference to all the talent Washington had accrued that off-season. In 2016 he may get that ring.

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Struggles or no struggles I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a pitcher in baseball that wants to see Harper staring back at them from the batters box during a big game in October.