With a much quieter offseason preceding his second season in Philadelphia, there was a thought that Bryce Harper could compete for the National League MVP Award and help the Phillies return to the postseason for the first time since 2011.
In his age-27 season, Harper opened the campaign on a torrid pace. Following a 13-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Aug. 18, Harper’s slash line stood at a staggering .367/.486/.700 with a 1.186 OPS.
Even over the course of a 60-game stretch, Harper was never going to be able to maintain that type of production. He was putting up Ted Williams-caliber production through the first three weeks of the season. It simply wasn’t sustainable.
But unfortunately for Harper, a back injury hampered him for much of the remainder of the season. On Sept. 23, manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that Harper’s injury “started four or five weeks ago,” and admitted that in a normal season, he may have been shut down for some period of time to allow his body to return to 100 percent. In a 60-game sprint, that time wasn’t there.
There were good and bad stretches for Harper.
After launching a 470-foot home run in Atlanta on Aug. 22, Harper wouldn’t homer again until Sept. 12, going 18 games without hitting a home run, an especially consequential amount in such a short season.
Harper would homer three times between the team’s Sep. 17 loss to the New York Mets and win over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of a doubleheader on Sept. 18. Even in a loss, the two-home run performance against the Mets marked one of his best games in a Phillies uniform. He hit two bombs in the first two innings of the game, with the home runs traveling a combined 878 feet.
Two days later, though, Harper had to leave a loss to Toronto because his back was bothering him so much. In the seven remaining games, Harper was used as the DH, as opposed to playing in right field, five times.
When we’ve all spent our entire lives basing our evaluations on a 162-game scale, it’s really hard to know how much stock to place in a 60-game season. It’s nearly impossible to fairly evaluate Harper’s second campaign with the Phillies when you factor in that for at least half of it he was managing a back injury.
If you were told in mid-August when Harper was scorching-hot that he would finish the season with a .268 batting average, 13 home runs and 33 RBIs, you may have had some level of disappointment. But the context of the back injury is crucial.
What’s more, Harper continued to get on base at an extremely high clip in 2020, even though he wasn’t at 100 percent for much of it. He led the entire sport with 49 walks during the regular season, and his .420 on-base percentage was fifth.
If you project the numbers that Harper put up over the course of the 60-game season out to 162 games, he would have slashed .268/.420/.542 with 36 home runs, 92 RBIs and a .962 OPS. Perhaps the most encouraging part is over a 162-game season, Baseball Reference projects that the six-time All-Star would have walked 136 times, as compared to just 120 strikeouts. In his first season with the Phillies, Harper struck out a career-high 178 times.
Would those numbers over a 162-game season – or slightly less if he had an injured list stint – have put him in the top five of National League MVP voting? Probably not, but he would have been just outside of that. That’s pretty remarkable to think about when the 60-game span the projections are based off of include at least 30 games of him managing a back injury.
Where the back injury really showed up for Harper was in his fielding. In 2019, Harper was a Gold Glove Award finalist, recording 13 outfield assists and posting 10 defensive runs saved. In 2020, Harper was asked to play a couple games in center field, but in the 370.0 innings he played in right field, he posted two outfield assists and -1 defensive runs saved.
In the remaining 11 years on Harper’s contract, there will likely come a day where he should be a DH on a full-time basis. However, with him set to turn 28 later this week, we aren’t at that point yet. While 2019 may prove to be Harper’s best defensive year as a Phillie, it stands to reason that you can chalk up a good bit of his defensive regression in 2020 to dealing with a back injury.
2020 won’t be remembered as Harper’s best season in Philadelphia, but all things considered, his output was pretty impressive. We are, though, still waiting on Harper’s signature season(s) in red pinstripes. Perhaps 2021 will bring Harper’s seventh All-Star appearance, and the return of October baseball to Philadelphia for the first time in a decade.
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