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Through 3 years, who has been better — Bryce Harper or Manny Machado?


Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are forever linked together. (Dustin Bradford/Brian Rothmuller/Icon SportsWire)

The San Diego Padres only played the Philadelphia Phillies six times in 2021, but Manny Machado made the best of limited chances to rake against a team that once seemed like a favorite to sign him when he reached free agency after the 2018 season.

An All-Star for the fifth time in his career in 2021, Machado homered four times, drove in 11 runs and posted a 1.164 OPS in just six games against the Phillies. The four home runs that Machado hit against the Phillies were tied for the most he had against any team — he also homered four times against the Colorado Rockies, a team he played 19 times because they are in the National League West.

Still, as Bryce Harper won his second National League MVP in 2021, it was hard to walk away feeling like the Phillies — at least in the short term — made a mistake in picking him over Machado. But how do Harper and Machado compare after three seasons of their historic contracts?

Offense

Since the start of the 2019 season, Harper has slashed .281/.402/.556 with 83 home runs, 231 RBIs, 248 walks and 12.2 in offensive WAR.

Over the same period, Machado has slashed .273/.345/.492 with 76 home runs, 238 RBIs, 154 walks and 10.1 in offensive WAR.

In terms of home runs, RBIs and batting average, Harper and Machado are relatively close. However, Harper separates himself in terms of walks and on-base percentage. Additionally, while the two have similar home run numbers, Harper has 23 more doubles over the past three seasons than Machado.

Machado is a very good offensive player, but Harper is a clear step ahead of him.

Fielding

Defensive metrics are far from perfect, but they do paint a picture of a declining defender in right field at Citizens Bank Park.

Harper was a Gold Glove finalist in his first season with the Phillies, when he posted 13 outfield assists, zero outs above average and a career-high 11 defensive runs saved.

Given that the 2020 season was shortened to only 60 games by the pandemic and that he played at least half the season with a back injury, it was easy to look past Harper’s defensive decline in his second season with the Phillies.

However, there wasn’t a bounce-back defensively in 2021. Harper’s arm remains one of the strongest at his position, as evidenced by the 10 outfield assists that he had last season. But those outfield assists came with -6 outs above average and -6 defensive runs saved.

On a team that finished the season with a league-worst -54 defensive runs saved, Harper was far from the biggest problem defensively. But will there come a day during his contract that Harper shifts to left field and/or gets a decent chunk of his at-bats at DH? Probably.

Meanwhile, Machado was an all-time defender early in his career with the Baltimore Orioles, playing third base in a manner that would make Brooks Robinson proud. Not only did Machado win two Gold Gloves as an Oriole, but he won the 2013 Platinum Glove Award as the American League’s best defender.

Machado may not be the all-time defender that he was in his early-20s at this stage of his career, but he remains a strong third baseman. Machado has 13 defensive runs saved over the last two seasons, and 100 total in his career. The 29-year-old also had three outs above average in 2021.

While Harper got the nod offensively, Machado is a superior defender, as he’s always been.

Team Success

Both the Phillies and Padres had disappointing 2021 seasons, but the path to how each team got there was unique.

For the Phillies, the script was a relatively familiar. Harper won the NL MVP and Zack Wheeler finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting, but a top-heavy Phillies roster missed out on the playoffs, extending the organization’s postseason drought to 10 years. Between September and the two regular season games in October, the Phillies went 14-16.

The Phillies did go 82-80 in 2021, marking the first winning season since 2011. As you can imagine, it was hard to find anyone that was celebrating the moral victory.

Meanwhile, the Padres went 53-40 in the first half of perhaps the most anticipated season in franchise history. However, they collapsed after the All-Star Break, going 26-43. San Diego finished the season at 79-83, more than 25 games back of the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers in their own division.

Since Harper joined the Phillies, they are 191-193. The Padres are 186-198.

What Deal Looks Better?

There probably isn’t a right answer to this question.

Since the start of the 2019 season, Harper’s 12.8 fWAR is seventh among all position players. Machado is 21st with a 10.2 fWAR, but with an MVP-caliber season, he could still match or pass Harper in that category.

Machado has seven years and $230 million remaining on his deal, though he can opt-out after 2023, his age-30 season. If Machado chooses not to return to the free-agent market in a couple offseasons, the Padres will have him under contract through his age-35 season. While Machado may not be at his peak for the entirety of his deal, but it stands to reason that he won’t fall off a cliff in the final years of his contract as well.

Certainly, the Phillies — and Harper himself — have to be happy that there isn’t an opt-out halfway through his contract, because in a media market like Philadelphia, we would already be talking about it.

The flip side of that, though, is that Harper has 10 years and $268 million left on his deal. The average annual value of that — $26.8 million — isn’t especially high, as he likely could have gotten quite a bit more than that if he became a free agent this offseason. But Harper is under contract through his age-38 season. He also possesses a full no-trade clause, and seems pretty serious in wanting to be settled with his young family for the foreseeable future. That means that no matter how he ages — whether his back holds up well or not — he’s almost certainly going to be a Phillie.

Perhaps more than anyone, the Phillies will benefit from the DH likely becoming universal in 2022 on a permanent basis. In the interim, it can be used to help get Harper and J.T. Realmuto off their feet on certain days, while potentially keeping the bats (but eliminating any defensive questions) of Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm in the lineup. In the later years of his contract, Harper could be a full-time DH, though. Both because he’s a stronger fielder and because he only signed a 10-year deal, Machado is unlikely to have that fate in San Diego.

For 2021, Harper was the better player, and you’d probably rather have him than Machado for the next few seasons. But you would probably be hard-pressed to find too many executives who would rather have a player with 10 years remaining on his deal over one who is only a few months older and has seven years left.

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