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Bryce Harper signs with the Philadelphia Phillies

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Player Debate: Can Harper resurface as the number one contender to Trout?

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

It’s official: Bryce Harper is a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

You’ll be reading lots of exciting news about his new home park and deadly lineup. I’m here with a friendly reminder to keep that ADP in check. Don’t overreact. It is a great hitter’s park and the lineup surrounding him is outstanding. However, his lineup was outstanding in Washington as well. He is still playing in the NL East, but this time with a twist. He’s now going to be getting a healthy number of at-bats against pitcher numero uno: Mad Max. Not to mention the rest of the Nationals staff that includes Strasburg and a nasty left-hander named Patrick Corbin. The Phillies pitchers are exceptional as well, but nothing compared to the Washington rotation. Moreover, the Braves have some excellent young pitchers emerging with the likes of Toussaint, Soroka, and potentially Kyle Wright and Luiz Gohara. I’m willing to bet Braves pitchers are tougher on hitters this year than last. The impact on the rest of the squad I would see as a slight bump in counting stats for Segura, McCutchen, Realmuto and Hoskins. Conversely, I would steer clear of Cesar Hernandez at this stage because the chances of him leading off have now significantly diminished.

Where should you draft Bryce Harper?

The last time there was a legitimate debate if Mike Trout should be the #1 overall pick, it was between him and Bryce Harper after Harper’s monster 2015. In 2019, we have the first real contender for Trout’s heavyweight title – Mookie Betts.

First of all, let’s clarify that most would not classify Betts’ 2018 season as a breakout. That was 2016. However, it was much improved over his 2017 season, which gave some pause as to whether he was a legitimate early first round pick. Now he’s back in the fold. Can Harper make his triumphant return?

Tale of the Tape

Mookie Betts Name Bryce Harper
Mookie Betts Name Bryce Harper
RF Position RF
26 Age 26
Round 5, Pick 21 Drafted Round 1, Pick 1
346/438/640 2018 Line 249/393/496
264/344/459 2017 Line 319/413/595
1 MVPs 1
1.9 NFBC ADP 18.5
300 High Bowling Score Unknown

Mookie Betts put himself in the first round discussion in 2016 when he hit 31 homers and 118 RBIs with a .318 average. However, he did most of that damage in only two ballparks. 25 of the homers were in either Fenway Park or Camden Yards. His home and away splits were alarming, as he slugged over 100 points better at home. 2017 was a strange season for Betts, who hit 16 of his 24 home runs away from Fenway. Overall, he hit .264 that year with a .268 BABIP.

Betts has a career .315 BABIP and set a career high in 2018 hitting .346 helped by a .368 BABIP (100 points higher than last year!). Betts is a career .303 hitter and his skill set should allow a high BABIP to play. I would expect a .300 average from Betts for the next several seasons. Why? He has become even better at hitting baseballs. His line drive percentage, average exit velocity and hard hit percentages all improved significantly in 2018 and were above his career averages.

All of his plate discipline metrics are extremely consistent year-after-year and his swinging strike rate is elite at 5.0% in both 2018 and 2017. In 2018, he became more aggressive and more pull-happy, but also improved his walk rate as he received less pitches in the strike zone. In particular, he become a better two-strike hitter in 2018. After getting behind 0-2 in the count, his average improved from .198 to .293 in 2018. He was tops in the MLB in xwOBA, besting Mike Trout and J.D. Martinez in 2018. I am excited to say that Mookie Betts has become an even better hitter in 2018 and his track record makes him deserving of an early Round 1 pick over the next several years. This has led into a—albeit very one-sided—debate between Trout and Betts at #1 overall.

Shifting gears, many fantasy managers are drooling over the value Bryce Harper represents in Round 2 because of his upside. Bryce Harper had an excellent 2017, but hit 70 points lower in 2018. Bear in mind, he missed significant time in 2017 due to injury and still managed 29 homers, 95 runs and 87 RBIs in only 111 games. He still went 34-103-100 in 2018 with a respectable 13 steals, but hit only .249. His BABIP tumbled in 2018, the mirror image of Mookie’s BABIP change. However this is explainable because Harper struggled against the shift. He hit .063 in 2018 compared to .119 in 2017 when he made contact to the infield.

His average also fell from .489 to .342 on any ball that he pulled. So you might expect Harper to make a conscious effort to stop hitting into the shift. However, his pull % went up from 35.5% to 42.3%. It wasn’t all steps in the wrong direction. Bryce’s plate discipline improved, as his walk rate increased (led the league with 130 walks) and O-Swing % decreased. His hard hit percentage increased and his average exit velocity remained exactly the same. Can we attribute his decline in production to bad luck and the shift? I would argue not, because his ability to make contact also declined. His O-Contact % (contact on swings on pitches outside of the zone) was down only slightly from 55.9% to 55.4%, but this is down all the way from a career mark of 61.0%. The big warning signs are his Z-Contact % (contact on swings on pitches inside the strike zone) which was down from 85.1% to 79.6%. His swinging strike rate was up from 12.2% 2017 to 12.9% in 2018 while posting a career mark of 11.5%.

Another concerning metric is Harper’s OBP when behind in the count. In 2017, Harper’s OBP was .576 when he was ahead. When he was behind, he had an OBP of .254, striking out in 47 of 134 plate appearances. In 2018, he had an even better OBP of .581 when he was ahead. However, when he was behind in the count, he had an OBP of .181, striking out in 80 of 166 plate appearances, or nearly half the time.

Harper had one absolute monster year in 2015, winning the MVP and slashing .330/.460/.649. This sparked the Trout vs. Harper debate at number one overall and the split was quite even heading into 2016.

However, Harper has since been tagged as injury prone, playing in less than 120 games in three of his seven seasons. Moreover, his profile suggests that his BABIP may suffer a permanent decline as he struggles against the shift. Harper’s contact ability, especially with two strikes, has become questionable. It is not out of the question that the shift has also indirectly impacted his ability to make contact with pitches inside the zone. Harper has now posted averages of under .250 in two different seasons. Despite hitting .300 in the second half of 2018, Harper is a high variance play. Because of this, he is no longer an early Round 1 selection. In fact, I would not select Harper until Round 2 in my drafts this spring.

Conclusion

Mookie Betts is the better value at his current ADP and the 2018 season is a more accurate expectation of future output from both Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper. I would not rule out a monster season from Harper this year, and his ADP should rise after his relocation to Philadelphia. However, there are too many elite players that are much safer heading into 2019.