Next week’s All-Star Game and Home Run Derby are a perfect chance for Washington to celebrate and appreciate Bryce Harper for all he has done for the Nationals for seven seasons. It’s also an ideal opportunity to give him a huge hug if it helps him, and the Nats owners, find a way to build a long-term future at a moment when that seems quite unlikely and perhaps even against baseball logic.
If money were free, and fantasies were reality, then the best possible Nats team for 2019, and far beyond, almost certainly would be built around an outfield of Harper in right field with rookies Victor Robles in center and Juan Soto in left.
Because the Lerners, who own the team, are multi-billionaires, they can — in theory, and up to a point — view money as free and turn such fantasies into fact.
The family, including patriarch Ted and wife Annette, dote on Harper personally, almost like a grandson, and understand that a franchise can wait decades to get a multi-generation team symbol. In the free agent era, just four players have hit 400 home runs and played their entire careers with the same team: Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, Jeff Bagwell and Cal Ripken. Harper could be one.
However, this All-Star game likely will be played in an inescapable swirl of conjecture about Harper: his .213 batting average on a .500 team, his future as he plays out his walk year in what may become a period of salary stagnation, or even contraction.
In addition to the normal complex story lines that surround the biggest free agent stars, this Nats tale has a unique twist. Unlike any previous player who might set a new ceiling for contracts, Harper plays for a team that, partly as precaution and partly through good scouting and development, almost can replace him and then use all that money to sign other free agents and seek extensions with current players such as Anthony Rendon.
If Harper leaves D.C., the Nats would still have a talented but inexpensive outfield of Soto, Robles and Adam Eaton (.393 on-base percentage as a Nat) for a combined $32 million in 2019, ’20 and ’21 — about $11 million a year for an entire quality outfield. Soto and Robles would remain under Nats control through 2024.
That’s why it’s hard to envision the Nats locking up perhaps 10 times that much future payroll in the kind of from-here-to-eternity contract that Harper may get in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia or Chicago.
In the next week, don’t expect to see temperate evaluations when it comes to Harper’s value. But that’s what we should seek.
First, Harper’s batting average is an anomaly caused by very bad luck on batting-average-on-balls-in-play — currently the second-lowest in the N.L. at .225 versus .356 last season. If his BABIP were at his career level (.312), his average would be near his .278 career mark, too.
Agent Scott Boras says Harper is afflicted by “discriminatory” shifts. Please. Freddie Freeman pulls the ball slightly more than Harper, hits to left field slightly less and faces tons of shifts, too — and his BABIP is .357. Yes, just like Harper’s last year. Boras would rather use big words inappropriately than say, “Please feel sorry for my soon-to-be-richer-than-Croesus client. He’s hittin’ ’em where they are.”
Also, Harper, who’s on pace for 38 homers, does not suffer from being walked too much. His current rate is 19.1 percent. When he was MVP in 2015, it was 19.0.
Boras says pitchers are “starving Harper out of the zone.” Wrong. From 2001-04, Barry Bonds was walked (or hit by a pitch) 198 times per season, yet averaged 52 home runs and won all four MVP awards. You can starve only yourself.
The only thing wrong with Bryce — it’s not much and probably not predictive of his future — is that he has caught a strikeout bug: 24.2 percent whiffs, up from his career rate of 20.1. But he fanned 26.3 percent in 2014. The reason is correctible. Look at the percentage of pitches thrown inside the strike zone to Harper (second-fewest in the N.L.) and his lack of ability to make contact when he chases outside the zone (second-worst in the N.L.). Harper just needs to stop chasing. Listen to Babe Ruth on hitting: “Pick a good one and sock it.” Note the word “good.”
Harper is not always an amazing hitter. In four of his previous six seasons, he has hit between .243 and .274 with an OPS of .768 to .854. That’s merely quite good. Analytics grade him as a slightly above-average base runner but a slightly below-average defender. It’s Harper the Total Package — including his huge numbers in 2015 and ’17 — that elevate his overall value and provide us dazzling memories.
FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement rates Harper as the 17th-best player in MLB the past five years since he turned 21. I’d say more like 10th. That site also estimates his career value in free agent dollars at $220.5 million over his six-and-a-half season or $34 million per full year. That probably right — for some team, but probably not for the Nats who are loaded with young outfielders.
Even having an “off” season, Harper is one of the eight best young players in MLB. If you asked me to pick among players ages 23-26 for the next seven years — Mike Trout, Carlos Correa, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant or Harper — I’d just say, “After Trout, you pick.” And Nolan Arenado, Jose Altuve and Freeman are just 27, 28 and 28.
Disregard Harper’s .167 July or his four-strikeouts-and-a-error Tuesday. With normal health, he likely will be a Hall of Famer. Also, day after day, he has contributed more than anyone to the Nats in their past 1,000-plus games, during which they have had the second-most regular-season wins in baseball.
So Harper is a winner — though, as usual with him, with an asterisk. Unless this season changes trajectory fast, Harper also will play on his seventh straight talented team that never got past Oct. 13. Playoff OPS: .812. Not bad.
In baseball, one man doesn’t make a champion, or even a final four team, as Trout has proved clearly. You want Harper. But you can do without him.
Wednesday’s Nats game could be watched only on Facebook which asked its audience (shock): “Where will Bryce Harper sign this offseason and why?”
If you gave Ted Lerner and Harper truth serum, they couldn’t answer that today. What if Harper and the Nats finish this season as flops and free-agent prices are in the dumpster in January? What if the Bryce-led Nats pull a Capitals comeback?
The most likely outcomes are between those extremes. In those scenarios, the Nats probably have better team-building options than going hard after Harper. But baseball loves to shatter crystal balls.
That’s why, as the All-Star Game arrives, and the rest of baseball wants to speculate, Washington should maintain its focus — on Harper, one of the most exciting sports stars in the history of the city.
The present moment is where our pleasure always lives. Next week, that’s in the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. Harper loves such stages. What a seven-year thrill he has been for Washington baseball. And D.C. has been good to him.
Don’t ask for the moon while we still have the star.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.