On the harping about Harper

2019-08-13 BryceHarper

Playfully shushing Giants fans last weekend (after shushing them with a three-run homer) is one thing, but a lot of Bryce Harper’s critics might want to shush, too, if they look at his season a little deeper.

The old schoolers can’t decide whether to be thrilled or dismayed that Bryce Harper’s “only” a .250 hitter this year. It figures, in a way. Too many people still can’t get past their first impressions of Harper. Even seven years after the fact. They can’t see the talent for the real or imagined ego.

They won’t always admit it but that .250 batting average gives them a thrill at seeing what they still consider an insolent punk cut down to size. But they also hope, regardless, that the Phillies bringing former manager Charlie Manuel back as their hitting coach for the rest of 2019—after John Mallee couldn’t seem to grok how to marry analytics to individual hitters—gets Harper to hit “better.”

Suggest they look a little more deeply and see what they can’t see beyond the .250, or the National League-leading 139 strikeouts, and they just don’t have time for such nonsense. Not even if taking that deeper look might tell them what FanGraphs has figured out: Harper this season may be the most clutch hitter in baseball.

Clutch hitting seems at once definable and a little elusive. In Smart Baseball, ESPN analyst Keith Law says there are such things as clutch hits but not clutch hitters: “the idea that a certain hitter is somehow better in these close and late situations—or even that some hitters are demonstrably worse in said situations—is not based in fact, nor has it withstood dozens of attempts to verify it . . . if you’re a good hitter, you’re a good clutch hitter, and if you’re a good clutch hitter, you were just a good hitter to begin with.”

“Statistically,” writes ESPN’s Sam Miller, “‘clutch’ means a player hits better in the highest-leverage moments than he does in lower-leverage ones. It means his impact on his team’s win probability is greater than his overall numbers alone would suggest.” And hitting in the Phillies’ highest leverage situations in 2019, Harper’s numbers look a lot different than his basic slash line.

As a matter of fact, Harper’s high-leverage slash line (read carefully) is .322/.385/.655. He just spent a weekend going 3-for-14 against the Giants, and on the surface that doesn’t look terribly impressive, never mind “clutch” . . . but guess what those three hits were?

1) A three-run homer when the Phillies trailed by a run in the seventh inning. (Making it a little more delicious: a Giants fan chanting “Overrated!” at Harper loudly as he checked in at the plate that time up.) 2) A bases-loaded single that sent home a pair and turned a deficit into a one-run lead in the second. 3) A home run that turned a one-run lead into a two-run advantage.

Harper is also among 2019’s top hitters for win probability added. If you use Baseball Reference‘s WPA measure, Harper’s seventh; if you use FanGraphs‘s, he’s sixth. He’s in the mix with several players on better teams, including a pair of Dodgers (Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy), a pair of Braves (Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna, Jr.), and a pair of Red Sox (Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts). Not to mention Mike Trout, who’s next to the top despite his team not being as good as even Harper’s is this year.

It’s Harper’s statistics in low-leverage situations, Miller writes, that’s pulling his overall performance papers down. The cynic to whom Harper’s been a boil on baseball’s butt from the moment he arrived won’t give the deeper look.

Or, listen to Harper himself. The mature Harper who still thinks baseball ought to be fun, doesn’t apologise for having fun, but doesn’t put his foot in his mouth as often as he did when he was a kid who thought the world was his for the possessing.

When Harper signed that thirteen-year contract that’s going to pay him about three times the equivalent of a small state economy, he never promised anyone rose gardens. But how many really paid attention to what he said when he faced the press after signing the deal?

Being able to be part of an organization for 13 years, and to be able to put all my faith and trust into everybody in this organization, I’m very excited about it. I’m not going to tell you I’m going to win MVP every single year. Is that my goal? Absolutely, I want to do that every single year. But there’s going to be down years, there’s going to be big years, there’s going to be years that are just OK. We’re gonna go in, we’re gonna try to do everything we can to win and play hard and play well — that’s what it’s all about.

You can argue (I have) that a sizeable enough piece of Harper is doing just what the Phillies’ Hall of Fame legend Mike Schmidt also did after signing his first big money contract: pressing, trying too hard to live up to the bucks the first time out of the chute. More players than Joe and Jan Fan want to think about have been there, done that.

But Harper is too realistic, too self-aware, to know that even if he could blow Ted Williams out of the water the Phillies wouldn’t and couldn’t possibly live by him alone. He shifted his emphases from himself to the team more frequently than you’d admit if you still couldn’t get past the image of Harper as a self-possessed egomaniac.

“If I’m 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, that doesn’t really matter,” he said under the post-signing questioning. “It’s about what we can do to get that extra run to win the game . . . The thing about the (NL) East is it’s a juggernaut. I’m not going to tell you that we’re going to come in this year and win the World Series or win the division this year. That’s the goal. But good things take time, as well.”

Carp all you want about Harper’s cumulatively down 2019. But then confront that .322/.385/.655 high-leverage slash line. And ponder these among Harper’s situational isolated slash lines:

Bryce Harper, 2019 PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
Men on base at all 235 .342 .434 .628 1.062
Runners in scoring position 121 .378 .479 .653 1.132
Second and third/two out 11 .333 .636 1.000 1.636
Bases loaded 15 .333 .333 .667 1.000

This guy is an offensive dominator overall in the moments when it absolutely matters the most to a Phillies team on which he sits, as Miller also notes, with double the win probability added of their second best hitter and over triple their third-best.

The question now shouldn’t be whether Harper’s let the Phillies (or anyone else) down. As Miller says, “They’ve let Harper down.” If you’re still going to be foolish enough to see nothing beyond his .250 traditional batting average, maybe you’ll at least give him his due as the most powerful and most clutch .250 hitter in baseball this season.

At minimum, give Harper his due as a young man with a heart and a conscience, too. The North Camden (New Jersey) Little League, presumably chock full of young players who include some Phillies fans, was robbed in June. Harper just donated Under Armour 4 cleats and other Under Armour equipment, plus signed baseballs, to players in that league. In person, at a local Dick’s Sporting Goods store.

“Growing up that’s what it was all about, looking up to the heroes I did, the guys I loved to watch play,” he told Forbes. “To be able to do that and be that guy now for these kids means the world. Being able to start that process of giving back to them and being able to put a new pair of cleats on their feet, new batting gloves on their hands, and being there today was a lot of fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

Hitting in the highest leverage ain’t half bad, either.



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