Troll this, Harper haters

2019-10-17 BryceHarper

Even as they celebrate a stupefying sweep to the National League pennant, the Nationals really would have had 2019 life easier with the departed Bryce Harper. Says who? Says the evidence.

Are we over the false addition-by-subtraction narrative involving a certain former National yet? I don’t want to throw any sand in the eyes of Nats fans delirious over their team’s romp to the World Series, but ask not for whom the bell trolls, it trolls for thee.

The Nats’ previous postseason foul-ups, bleeps, and blunders had little to nothing to do with Harper himself. They went to four postseasons with him and didn’t get past the division series. So Nats fans and observers alike think getting past this year’s division series and into the World Series could only have happened without him.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so ramped up if the Nats hadn’t so happened to finish sweeping the Cardinals out of the National League Championship Series the night before Harper’s 27th birthday. In a season before which Harper committed a Freudian slip during his welcome-to-the-Phillies presser (I want to bring a championship to D.C.) with which nobody could resist trolling him now.

Maybe what even the least-believing Nats fans can’t admit to themselves in the flush of the Nats’ surrealistic achievement is that in their heart of hearts—no matter how many catcalls or signs saying “Snake!” or “M(oney)L(oving)B(ryce)!” or “Bryce Arnold” (pasting Harper’s head atop Benedict’s body) showed up—they may think it would have been easier to do with Harper.

If that’s what they really think, they’re actually right. It’s just a shame that what’s proving a glorious Nats season after all had to begin under another false narrative.

Nats fans who misspelled T-R-A-T-I-O-R before Harper smashed a homecoming home run late in his first return to Nationals Park in enemy fatigues either forgot, or chose to ignore, that the Nats lost him after trying to slip him the proverbial mickey as 2018 wound down.

They offered him ten years and $300 million with $100 million of it to be deferred enabling Harper to collect checks until he reaches five years short of Social Security. The part everyone missed or chose to ignore: Deferred money decreases the actual value because it’s a set figure that doesn’t adjust for inflation. In essence, and with the best intentions, the Nats actually offered Harper below his market value to stay.

And when Harper and the Phillies began talking this past February, with Harper essentially telling his agent Scott Boras to keep his big trap shut while he talked turkey with Phillies owner John Middleton, the Phillies didn’t even think about trying to low-ball him.

Harper previously made no secret of wanting to stay in Washington. He knew how appreciated he was in the ballpark and in the city. But if you tell me you’d rather take what proves less than what your fair market tells you you’re really worth, I’ll tell you you’re lying through your teeth. The Nats as much as told him, “We appreciate you, too, but not as much as you think.”

It wasn’t as though the Nats’ owners were going broke, either. The Lerners are actually the wealthiest owners in baseball; Ted Lerner is recorded being worth $4.9 billion. Middleton is merely the third wealthiest baseball owner at $3.2 billion. But Middleton had no problem showing Harper the real market value and securing, not lowballing him.

And don’t go there about the postseasons to which the Nats went with Harper but without getting past the division series. It wasn’t even close to Harper’s fault. Don’t believe me? Ask NBC Sports’ Bill Baer, who also remembers as I do that:

* It wasn’t Harper who let the Cardinals hang four runs on the scoreboard in the top of the ninth in Game Five, 2012 division series—after the Nats jumped the Redbirds for six in the first three innings (with Harper himself starting the scoring with a first-inning RBI triple off Adam Wainwright, then going on to nail Wainwright with a leadoff home run in the third), and following starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez wild-pitching and then walking the Cardinals back to a three-run distance.

* It wasn’t Harper—whose notorious second home run of the set off then-Giants/now-Nats arsonist Hunter Strickland tied Game Five of the 2014 division series—who wild-pitched Joe Panik home with Pablo Sandoval at the plate to break a two-all tie or who stranded himself after a two-out walk in the top of the ninth to end that game and the Nats’ season.

* It also wasn’t Harper’s bright idea to hook Jordan Zimmermann one out from a Game Two shutout in that set, which would have tied the set at a game each; or to leave the better bullpen arms plus available Stephen Strasburg untroubled in Game Five, either.

* It wasn’t Harper who let the Dodgers hang up a four-spot in the top of the seventh of Game Five, 2016 NLDS, or did nothing much from there to answer back even while Clayton Kershaw pitched the ninth to save it. In his final two plate appearances after that seventh, Harper singled a pinch runner to third and worked Kershaw for a one-out walk.

* It wasn’t Harper who puked the Nats’ bed in the fifth inning of Game Five, 2017 NLDS, when an exhausted Max Scherzer was sent to the mound in relief, surrendered a two-run double, and then watched in horror with everyone else when his catcher committed a run-scoring passed ball and a throwing error on the same play, then committed catcher’s interference to load the bases, before the inning’s fourth run scored when Scherzer plunked Jon Jay.

* Harper did, however, set up the next Nats scoring in the bottom of the sixth, when he doubled Jayson Werth to third right before Werth scored on a wild-pitch walk and Ryan Zimmerman doubled Harper home. And after the Cubs made it 9-6, Harper sent the seventh Nats run home with a sacrifice fly.

But no. Everyone wants to remember he struck out to end the game. Nobody wants to remember he wasn’t the reason the Cubs went forward and not the Nats, or that the Cubs made a still-manageable 7-4 game into an 8-4 game when Addison Russell doubled Ben Zobrist home in the top of the sixth.

What of 2019, after the Phillies signed Harper to a platinum contract making him a Phillie for life? Who replaced Harper in right field for the Nats this season, trolls? Fellow named Adam Eaton. Nice fellow. Wouldn’t harm the proverbial fly, seemingly. Good ballplayer. Didn’t exactly hurt the team. Pitched in big in that seven-run first in Game Four.

And wasn’t as good as Harper in 2019. Not even close.

It only begins in right field itself. For a guy whose defense has been solid one season and not so solid the next, Harper in 2019 was worth nine runs saved above the league average to the Phillies in right. Eaton to the Nats? One. I submit a man who saves his teams nine runs above average is more valuable at that position than a man who saves his team but one.

The sourpusses to whom the incomplete traditional batting average (which should really be considered just a hitting average) is the alpha and omega of hitter measurement will look at Harper’s .260 traditional batting average against Eaton’s .279 and decide right then and there, with no further need to examine, apparently, that you should want Eaton at the plate more than Harper.

Well, no, you shouldn’t.

Harper also had an .882 OPS to Eaton’s .792 this season. Harper’s on-base percentage was .372 to Eaton’s .365. I submit that right then and there the argument ought to have stopped. Bryce Harper would have been more valuable to the Nationals than Adam Eaton was this season and beyond.

And so what if Harper struck out 62 more times than Eaton? Harper on a team that turned out not to be quite as good as the Nats this season produced 219 runs (the sum of his runs scored and driven in) to Eaton’s 152. Since Harper’s Phillies finished 2019 with a .327 on-base percentage and Eaton’s Nats finished with a .352 on-base percentage, I submit that Harper looks even better for seeing his opportunities and seizing them.

On a more advanced examination level, Harper created 115 runs to Eaton’s 95; Harper’s run creation boils down to 7.0 runs created per game to Eaton’s 5.9, and Harper used 3.8 outs per run to Eaton’s 4.5 outs per run. You read it right. Bryce Harper in 2019 used fewer outs than Adam Eaton to account for more scoring.

That’s without observing that Harper delivered 72 out of 149 hits for extra bases overall (that’s a .483 extra base hit percentage) while Eaton delivered 47 out of 158 hits for extra bases overall (a .297 extra base hit percentage). And I didn’t even mention Harper hitting 35 home runs to Eaton’s fifteen until this very second.

By the way, if you want to talk about doings on the bases, you might care to observe that Harper and Eaton had the same number of stolen bases and arrests trying in 2019: fifteen thefts, three caught. That’s about the only way in which the Nats got equal value from Eaton this year.

Now we get to the proverbial nitty gritty, the thing that separates the boys from the men around here: how did these two guys do when they checked in at the plate in the highest-leverage moments, the moments that most mean runs on the scoreboard and/or chances to take leads and even win if these guys are at the plate?

All you people who still think the Nats were better off with Adam Eaton than they would have been with Bryce Harper this season aren’t going to like this:

High Leverage Hitting PA H XBH RBI BA OBP SLG OPS TB
Bryce Harper, 2019 127 35 21 50 .307 .370 .667 1.037 76
Adam Eaton, 2019 87 17 5 16 .236 .305 .333 .638 24

The Nats scored the second-most runs (873) in the National League in 2019 behind the Dodgers (886). I submit that Harper would have made the Nats the most-scoring team in the league by a few runs. And if you wanted someone to get the job done when you had runners on second or better and two outs, Harper’s the one you wanted: he has a 2019 OPS of 1.214 in that situation against Eaton’s .559.

Do you still want to tell me this year’s Nats are better off not having had Harper but having had Eaton? Even remembering the world lamented Harper’s low traditional batting average in the first half, consider Harper’s season-long high-leverage hitting and consider in hand whether that would have helped the Nats to far enough better than that much-discussed 19-31 start.

Without denigrating one degree the Nats’ stupefying October run from the wild card game to the World Series they’re now waiting to play, I think it’s fair to say that Harper would have made the Nats’ off-the-charts postseason pitching breathe that much easier whether in right field or at the plate.

Ain’t I a stinker? And I didn’t even think about wins above a replacement-level player until now.

But being the stinker I am, I have to do it: Harper was worth 4.2 WAR by Baseball Reference‘s measurement, and Eaton was worth 1.6. On the Phillies only catcher J.T. Realmuto (4.4) was worth a feather more than Harper and probably because he played a far tougher field position. On the Nats, five position players were well ahead of Eaton, from Anthony Rendon’s 6.3 to Howie Kendrick’s 2.6.

Think about that for a moment. While it seems like too much of the world thinks the Nats were better off this year without Bryce Harper but with Adam Eaton in right field, an aging, injury-historied veteran Nats infielder was worth one full WAR more than Eaton. (And of course you have to love it that Kendrick, worth that one full WAR more, dropped the bomb that yanked the Nats into their freshly-swept NLCS in the first place.)

Stinker that I am further, I have to measure Harper and Eaton by what I call a real batting average. Once again: the traditional batting average is a false measurement because it accounts for nothing more than your hits divided by your official at-bats and treats all your hits as having equal value.

You don’t need more than a nursery school education to know that all hits do not have equal value. But if you think a single is worth a double, a double is worth a triple, or all the above are worth a home run, maybe you should think about going back to night school. In kindergarten. Failing to account for every trip made to the plate is simply an incomplete measure of a batter’s value at the plate.

A real batting average would add your total bases (which do measure the true value of your hits), your walks, your intentional walks (once again: you deserve extra credit when the other guys decide they’d rather you take first base than their pitcher’s head off), your sacrifices, and the times you got hit by a pitch, then divide that total by all your plate appearances.

So—how do Harper and Eaton account for themselves in terms of a real batting average? Again, the Harper-haters aren’t going to like this one:

Real Batting Averages PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Bryce Harper, 2019 682 292 99 11 4 6 .604
Adam Eaton, 2019 656 242 65 0 3 9 .486

Would you care to remember that the real reason the Phillies ended up four games under .500 had nothing to do with Harper and everything to do with a) their none-too-good pitching this year, b) the apparent regressions of Rhys Hoskins and Maikel Franco; c) losing Andrew McCutchen for the season to injury after 59 games; and, d) their now-executed manager.

Gabe Kapler may have been deft with analytics, but he seemed blissfully unaware of the best ways to apply the data and seemed clumsy too often in the actual, critical, in-the-game, game-on-the-line moment. He forgot, if he ever knew, that the arguable accidental grandfather of analytics, Casey Stengel, boiled it down to one simple sentence: Baseball is percentage plus execution. Steeped in percentage, Kapler—with or without any string pulling from the front office—seemed ignorant of execution until it wasn’t executed but he finally was.

The Nats aren’t allergic to analytics at all, even if they don’t play it up the way other analytically-inclined teams like the Astros do. But they, like the Astros, execute. That’s the real reason why they finally executed the Dodgers before so thoroughly vaporising the Cardinals to reach the coming World Series. The real evidence says the Nats would have had that much more execution if they hadn’t essentially low-balled Harper last year.

So have your fun, Nats fans and others who still can’t resist trolling Harper over the Nats going there without him. I get that you resent him going to the enemy after everything Washington did for him, and you’re not liable to root for him in enemy fatigues, ever.

I also get that it should make you pray that much harder that the Lerners learned their lesson and don’t compel Anthony Rendon further to test his first free agency market, rather than offering to do him right by his actual market value. And, that they do what it takes to make Stephen Strasburg want to ignore the opt-out clause he can exercise this off-season to come and stay in the Nats family after all.

But I don’t get why you cling to the false narratives that say the Nats’ administration had no responsibility for Harper’s departure and that the Nats really were that much better off without him this year. Yes, they won the pennant without him. But the evidence says winning the pennant would have been a lot easier with him.

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