By CONNOR MOUNT and CHARLIE WRIGHT
Capital News Service
WASHINGTON – Washington Nationals wunderkind Bryce Harper spent 2015 shattering records en route to becoming the youngest unanimous Most Valuable Player winner in MLB history. Now, he’s learning how hard it is to improve on an MVP campaign.
Harper’s 2016 numbers are down across the board, with drops in every major batting category. He hasn’t hit below .270 in any full major league season, but as of Sept. 21, his average sat at .240. After accumulating 9.9 wins above replacement (known as WAR) in 2015, he has mustered just 1.4 so far, according to Baseball Reference.
WAR is baseball’s closest attempt at an all-encompassing statistic, pulling together a bevy of numerical categories into one figure. It represents how many wins a player is worth compared to a hypothetical player called up from the minors to fill in for the player in question.
It turns out, if we project Harper to be worth 0.3 more wins for the rest of the season (which the Fangraphs-housed ZiPS and Steamer algorithms predict), Harper would still be the owner of one of the worst MVP season follow-ups in terms of WAR since the mound was lowered to its current height in 1969.
Among the 88 non-pitcher winners of the MVP award since 1969, Harper had the 7th-highest WAR, at 9.9.
He finished behind only three Barry Bonds MVP campaigns, Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Morgan and Robin Yount. A projection to finish the year with 1.7 WAR in 2016 would give Harper the second-largest drop-off, behind only Bonds’ 2005 season.
One could argue that the difference in WAR over two seasons is unfairly influenced by the first season having such an enormous WAR value. An MVP winner with a lower WAR has less room to fall off.
But when comparing follow-up seasons of top ballplayers to their MVP years in terms of percentages, Harper’s decline in production is marked.
Harper’s projected 1.7 WAR is 17.17 percent of what he was worth in 2015. That’s the sixth-lowest among this collection of players.
Reigning MVP winners are frequently unable to replicate the success of the previous year. On average, their follow-up production is 73.12 percent of what they had created in the previous season, according to data gathered from Baseball Reference.
If Harper had an average decline, he would finish 2016 with 7.2 WAR. With a little less than two weeks left to play, the current WAR leader in the National League is Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, with 7.3.
“Realistically, I think, last year’s Bryce Harper was amazing, and also he overachieved,” Fangraphs writer Jeff Sullivan said. “He was almost certainly always going to come down some, but the extent of this decline, I don’t think it would have been reasonable to expect him to go all the way back to what he was in 2014, and that’s basically what he’s done.”
Harper played in just 100 games in 2014 due to thumb surgery, and when he found the field, he offered the lowest production of his career. He was worth a career low 1.0 WAR that season.
Injuries often play a role in less successful follow-up seasons.
For instance, Bonds had 10 fewer WAR in 2005 than he did in 2004, but he only appeared in 14 games as he battled knee injuries. Don Baylor, owner of the only negative post-MVP WAR since 1969, dealt with a broken wrist and an injured foot and missed more than 70 games in 1980.
That might not necessarily be the case for Harper. He sat five games in early August with a minor neck injury and Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci reported Harper has been playing through a right shoulder injury. Nationals manager Dusty Baker and general manager Mike Rizzo have denied the report, and Harper has not addressed it.
Injured or not, the right fielder should play in about 149 contests before the playoffs start, and could still be looking at 8.2 WAR fewer than he generated in his MVP season. But a lingering injury could have an effect on how hard he’s hit the baseball.
“Last year Harper pretty dramatically overproduced what you would have expected just based on the actual batted balls he hit,” Sullivan said.
Harper’s average exit velocity in 2015 was 91.4 mph, 63rd-highest in the league. Though he wasn’t hitting the ball especially hard, many still fell for hits and inflated his numbers.
Now, Harper’s exit velocity has trailed off to 89.5 mph, just outside the top 200, and the balls he puts in the air are being caught at the expected rate. In other words, his luck has dried up.
At least in terms of exit velocity, “He hasn’t really shown that he’s a huge slugger,” Sullivan said. “Which is unexpected for someone who came out of the minors with 80-grade power.”
To represent 2016 in another way, Harper generated one win every 15.45 games in 2015, while it’s taking 87.64 games to do the same in 2016. Only Don Baylor, Jeff Burroughs and George Bell had bigger differences in the time it took to produce one WAR.
Harper remains one of the premiere young talents in the game, and 2015 may be the first of several MVP seasons.
“I figure a healthy Bryce Harper in 2017, he’s not going to add a lot on the bases,” Sullivan said. “He should be fine in the field, and if he’s healthy I think he’ll be a really good hitter and he should end up being about as good as (Nationals second baseman) Daniel Murphy this year. So I think he’s probably going to be about a 5- or 6-win player moving forward. Clearly there’s upside there, but I need to see a lot more.”
Overall, Harper’s 2016 still has been statistically above league average in many categories, but the difference from his MVP season is a historical rarity, and illustrates the difficulty of replicating such a remarkable year.