Phillies Nuggets with Tim Kelly

3 takeaways from Bryce Harper’s first half as a Phillie



Bryce Harper’s first half with the Phillies has been a mixed bag. (Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

If Bryce Harper plays out his full 13-year/$330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, he’ll play 26 halves of baseball in red pinstripes. The six-time All-Star – who, notably, isn’t a seven-time All-Star now – just completed the first of those 26 halves.

Mixed bag, at least by the extremely high standards that Harper has played at in his career, is a fair way to describe his first three-and-a-half months with the Phillies. Here are three thoughts on Harper’s season thus far, and what he needs to do moving forward.

The Phillies need more home runs

When Harper hit three home runs in his first four games as a Phillie, he perhaps set an unreachable bar for how he was going to perform the rest of the 2019 season. Harper received a king’s welcome when he signed in Philadelphia, when he made his debut at Citizens Bank Park and after the Phillies returned home from a two game series in D.C., where he went 5-7 with a home run, three RBIs and three walks in a two-game series against his former team.

Harper isn’t having a bad season – he’ll enter the second half slashing .250/.370/.470 with 62 RBIs and 59 walks. For most players, that would be on a career pace. But for Harper, it feels rather underwhelming, especially when you consider that the 16 home runs he had prior to the All-Star Break wasn’t in the top 50 among major league players and is only one more than former Phillie Freddy Galvis.

As a team, the Phillies are tied with the Colorado Rockies for the 10th most home runs in the National League, which would have been inexplicable at the beginning of the season. That doesn’t fall on one player – J.T. Realmuto’s 10 home runs are less than most expected, and the same can maybe be said for Rhys Hoskins’ 20 home runs. But with only one stable starting pitcher, the Phillies will need to outslug opponents in the second-half of the season, and a lot of that will fall on Harper.

At the beginning of the season, we did a roundtable on Phillies Nation that set the over/under for home runs that Harper would hit in 2019 at 34.5. Every staffer polled took the over. Right now, if we adjusted that over/under to 29.5, it’s unclear if anyone would take the over. If the Phillies are going to make the playoffs in 2019, they need more power from Harper – full stop.

He’s had a major bounce-back defensively

A season ago, Bryce Harper had -26 defensive runs saved and a -14.4 ultimate zone rating for the Washington Nationals. Part of that was because he was forced to play some center field for Dave Martinez’s team, but even in right field a year ago, Harper had -16 defensive runs saved and a -7.4 ultimate zone rating. The thought when Harper was signed was that he would play right field for the first few years of his 13-year contract, but eventually move to DH if that became an option in the National League.

And that may still happen. But Harper, no longer concerned about potentially injuring himself before his long-awaited free-agency, has had a very nice defensive season in 2019, at least when you compare it to 2018.

Harper has spent all 763 of his innings in 2019 in right field, and has two defensive runs saved, a 6.8 ultimate zone rating and a 2.8 defensive WAR, which if the season ended today, would be the first time he had a positive defensive WAR since his rookie season of 2012. Harper also has five assists in the first-half of 2019, after posting zero from right field in 2018.

Where Harper has really improved is on plays deemed to be “unlikely” or “even” odds. Harper has had six chances to make an “unlikely” play – which is a 10-40 percent chance – and has made three of them, a year after he made only 25 percent of his unlikely opportunities in right field. On plays where Harper has had “even” odds – which is a 40-60 percent chance – he’s converted on three of his four chances, a year after he made just one of three potential “even” plays. This is a rather small improvement, but worth noting nonetheless.

Harper isn’t going to win a Gold Glove Award in 2019, but in a year he’s gone from being a defensive liability to a slightly above-average defender.

He was a better fit for Philadelphia than Manny Machado

In the final game of his first month with the Phillies, Bryce Harper went 0-4 with two strikeouts. The Phillies totaled just four hits against a rebuilding Detroit Tigers team, and as it drizzled at Citizens Bank Park, some disgruntled Phillies fans booed Harper’s performance.

The national media was ready to pounce on the narrative of Harper having second thoughts about his decision to join the Phillies after the first full month of a 13-year deal. He didn’t take the bait – quite the opposite, in fact.

“I’d do the same thing,” Harper told the collective media, which included Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia, after the game. “It’s not fun to lose, not fun to watch when you’re playing that way. (I was) 0-4 with two punchies. I’m probably thinking the same thing walking back to the dugout.”

That answer exemplified why from a public relations perspective Harper was a better fit in Philadelphia than Manny Machado, last offseason’s other top free-agent. Given the public relations disaster that was Machado’s postseason with the Los Angeles Dodgers – most notably, he responded to a perceived lack of hustle in Game 2 of the NLCS by admitting he isn’t ‘Johnny Hustle’ – it’s fair to wonder if he would have responded to questions about boos as well as Harper did. With Harper, he made the boos a non-story. Machado spent a few months in Los Angeles and despite playing all 162 games in 2018 and helping the Dodgers reach their second consecutive World Series title, his tenure is largely viewed as a failure.

This isn’t a dis of Machado, who will actually enter the second-half with four more home runs than Harper and an identical 2.0 fWAR. Given that Machado only just turned 27 and has been one of the best players in the sport this decade, there is a very good chance that his career will conclude with him being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Obviously, if the Phillies added him it would have made their lineup (and defense) much better than it had been.

But some players fit better in secondary media markets. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman admitted after the 2019 season that the Dodgers knew that Machado’s sometimes questionable effort running to first base didn’t begin last October. But in Baltimore, there’s a much smaller spotlight on the team from a day-to-day basis. The same goes in San Diego. Machado may be a better player than Harper – he may not be – but he’s better suited to be in a less intense media market.

Harper, meanwhile, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was in high school. He’s one of the more touted No. 1 picks in the history of baseball. Going away, he was voted as the more overrated player in baseball by his peers ahead of the 2019 season. Harper has spent his entire adult life hearing deafening boos at virtually every opposing stadium and playing under a spotlight that’s much more magnified than any other player in the sport. That means he’s well trained in how to squash any potential “gotcha” questions and largely able to tune out any internal and external criticisms. From that perspective, which is a very important one in any East Coast city, Harper was a significantly better fit in Philadelphia than Machado would have been.

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  5. Flashback: The Time Gabe Kapler Had To Be Pinch-Run For In The Middle Of A Home Run

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Jeff Orbach

    July 11, 2019 at 10:04 am

    One thing I find interesting, is Harper seems to be hitting a ton of doubles now. I wonder if it’s a front-spin, back spin deal or a launch angle thing.

    I would also like to see him take the ball to left more and hit where it’s pitched. I wonder if many of the struggles he seems to have is due to the hitting coach?

  2. Ken Bland

    July 11, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    If you’ve finally wakened from the snail’s pace of MLB free agency a few months back, maybe the pace of that boredom would drive you beyond nuts if you compared it to the finally winding down NBA pace of free agency. Polar opposites were never so extreme.

    My takeaway is can you imagine if Bryce Harper were a b-baller, and his Trout driven quote of if you think I’m not going to at least talk to potential free agents, you’re nuts (paraphrased, thank you). Wasn’t a Rob Manfred associate who wasn’t threatening a meeting with Harper over that comment. And how would Harper’s dialogue have been greeted by NBA folk? You have to ask? Seriously? Similar to the 3 ball revolution that the NBA has become, the superstar free agent credo has become recruit first, ask questions later. Harper never even recruited, but still got limelight attention prior to his first spring AB for a comment that NBA players smartly bypass in calling basketball brothers in search of the next super team.

  3. Norman D Sammons

    July 12, 2019 at 3:38 pm

    I have not seen Harper not hustle. That’s one reason I like him alot.

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