Bryce Harper has become the best player in the National League
I’m all in on Bryce Harper.
Of course, I should probably note that I always have been. Despite those critics who constantly compared him to Mike Trout in his first couple of seasons declaring him a lost cause and using no shortage of derogatory language to describe his apparent attitude problems, and the fact that he hasn’t surpassed the 118 game mark in either of the last two seasons, this was always the player he was going to be in my eyes. That player that he’s become is the best player in the National League.
At this point in the season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more feared hitter at the plate than that of the Washington Nationals right fielder. He’s won two consecutive National League Player of the Week awards, but his success this year goes beyond the first couple of weeks. An offseason in which he packed on muscle and changed his approach has already provided some incredible returns, as Harper transforms into the hitter that many had hoped he would be.
That adjustment has come primarily in the form of his newfound plate discipline. Only Kris Bryant sees more pitches per plate appearance than Bryce Harper does, as he sees an average of 4.38 P/PA. As a result, he’s walking up over 21% of the time, which is easily the best in the National League, two spots ahead of Bryant. It’s certainly aided him in emerging as a force at the plate, and is a primary reason his .476 on-base percentage is at the very top of the league. But there is much more that makes him such an impressive quantity for the Nats.
For one, there’s the power. One of the storylines of the offseason was how much muscle Harper packed on during the winter time. Whether it’s his Sports Illustrated cover or his Instagram workout videos, he spent the winter getting stacked, and a hitter that already had raw power became an absolute monster. He already has 14 home runs on the season, and he’s on pace to become the youngest to surpass the 50 home run mark.
He’s not just flashing his incredible strength in sending balls over the fence, though. He’s making hard contact just over 40% of the time, good for 11th in the National League and third best among NL outfielders. That’s helped him tack on eight doubles and a triple to his line this year, all of which culminate in his absurdly high .391 ISO. Nobody in baseball has demonstrated that type of ability to hit for extra bases this season, as his ISO stands above everyone else in the game. He’s generating more runs than any National League player, with a 216 wRC+ that easily leads the NL.
Perhaps more impressive, Harper’s swinging at a variety and having success against all types of pitches. The following, from Brooks Baseball, give a nice illustration of Harper’s average against pitches in various locations. Long story short: he’s mashing pitches inside the zone, while still having success on those pitches low and away, which is where pitchers of both handedness have made a priority against him.
Batting average obviously isn’t always indicative of the actual success (or failure) of a player, but Harper isn’t dropping bloop singles in the outfield. He’s making solid contact, and it’s obviously paying off.
It’s not as if he’s any sort of slouch in the field, either. In right field, he’s made 38 Out of Zone plays and has already posted eight Defensive Runs Saved for the year. His UZR/150 is decent enough, at 2.1 on the year in the outfield. He also has three outfield assists thus far. Those are very solid numbers for a player known for playing like his hair is on fire in the outfield. While they are mind-numbingly impressive, it’s important to remember that defensive metrics don’t always do a player justice. Just ask Andrew McCutchen.
Bryce Harper has become the total package. The elements have always been there, but injuries in the last couple of years and the fact that he didn’t turn 22 years old until after last season have prevented him from piecing everything together in the way that he has to this point in the 2015 campaign.
Statistically, Harper is perhaps the biggest threat of anyone in the National League. He leads the NL in home runs, RBIs, walks, slugging percentage, OPS, wRC+, and, of course, on-base percentage. There is not a single player in the National League that is more dangerous at the plate than Bryce Harper. If he isn’t sending pitches to the moon, he’s still managing to find his way on base nearly half of the time he steps in the box. Even if that comes down a touch, as his .383 BABIP might decline just a bit, he’s posted a high enough figure that a slight regression in that respect would do nothing whatsoever to make him any less dangerous.
Of course, the success of Bryce Harper will lead to more of the already unnecessary comparisons between himself and Mike Trout. While some of those comparisons may be valid, they’re ultimately not comparable, as has always been the case. Nonetheless, there is one very clear similarity in that both are dominating their respective leagues.
It took a bit longer than people would have liked (three whole seasons before he turned 22!), but Bryce Harper has finally emerged as that superstar for the Washington Nationals. As they stumbled out of the gate, Harper has consistently mashed and helped them to climb up out of that early slog. He’s the most dangerous player in the National League, and given the skill set he already possessed and the adjustments that he made, that’s not going to change any time soon.
Randy Holt is the managing editor for Statliners. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.