Bryce Harper seems a lock for the NL MVP (despite any “his team didn’t even make the playoffs” dissenters) and amidst the flaming wreckage of the Nationals’ season, it’s easy to overlook just how amazing his year was (and why suggesting his team’s failures should detract from his award vote is just crazy).
For the 2015 season, Bryce Harper hit 42 home runs, scored 118 runs, and drove in 99 more, all while slashing .330/.460/.649. That was good for the 2nd highest average in the NL (3rd in MLB), 5th in the NL in RBI, and 1st in the NL in every other category. The next highest slugging in either league was 59 points behind Harper (Mike Trout at .590) and his wOBAWeighted On Base Percentage: A comprehensive measure of offensive production, measuring all at bat outcomes and placed on a scale roughly equal to “normal” on base percentage. .320 is average, .340 above average, .370 great, and so on. of .461 was 34 points ahead of the next closest player in either league. (Joey Votto).
Harper spent most of the season with a wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player. over 200 before ending with a 197. As Craig Edwards at FanGraphs noted, finishing over 200 would have put him in exceedingly elite company, but his mark of 197 still puts him in rather rarefied air.
The question being asked about this season should not be whether Bryce Harper was the most valuable player in the National League this year, it should be “Just how impressive was this season really?” Short answer: Extremely.
Harper’s Season in Historical Context
When conducting a historical comparison, wRC+Weighted Runs Created Plus: A comprehensive measure of offensive production relative to the league. 100 is average and each point above or below is a percentage better or worse than the average player. is particularly useful because it accounts for all at-bat results, weighs them based on their correlation with runs scored, and then adjusts it for the offensive production of the league – a 150 means a player was 50% more productive than the league average, regardless of whether it was the dead ball era or the PED era.
In the modern era, there have been 43 seasons total in which a player produced a wRC+ of 195 or higher. Of those 43, 74% of them (including the top 22) were put up by a player named Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Hornsby, Mantle, Cobb, or Gehrig.
If we look at the raw numbers, there are only 42 seasons in which a player hit at least .325 (Harper hit .330), at least 40 HR (Harper hit 42), had an OPS of at least 1.100 (Harper had 1.109), scored at least 110 runs (118), while driving in at least 95 RBI (99). Of those seasons, 66% of them come from Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Hank Greenberg.
Regardless of how we look at it, Harper is in extremely good company in 2015, delivering an offensive performance rarely seen in MLB history. His performance is even more amazing considering his age.
Part of baseball’s recently heralded “Youth Movement”, Harper is only 22 years old, despite having completed his fourth full season in the majors. He was so hyped coming into the league that he was labeled a bust in his first two seasons, despite actually being one of the most productive young players ever (his third year was a legitimate disappointment, but judgment had been passed long before that).
Only 19 players 20 years old or younger have ever put up a season with 4+ fWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by FanGraphs. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system. (generally considered an All-Star level of production). Both of Harper’s first two years are on the list, and while the list contains some all-time greats, only Harper and Hall of Famer Mel Ott appear on the list twice.
Only 17 players 20 years old or younger have ever hit 20+ home runs in a season, and only Harper and Tony ConigliaroConigliaro may not be the most familiar name to non-Red Sox fans, but he was a player on a path to greatness before he was struck in the face by a pitch in his fourth season and the injury permanently damaged his eyesight. have done it twice.
Only 20 players 20 years old or younger have ever had a season where they put up a wRC+ of 120 or higher with at least 450 plate appearances and, again, only Harper and Ott did it twice.
While his 2014 season was a legitimate disappointment, the idea that his first two years were anything but great is just false and born of the incredible expectations and hype that surrounded his ascension to the majors at only 19 years old.
This Good, This Young
All that said, his age-22 season is something else entirely. As discussed above, there have only been a few players in history to match Harper’s production at any age – to have done it at only 22 years old has almost never happened before.
In 2015, Bryce Harper put up 9.5 fWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by FanGraphs. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system. and 9.9 bWARWins Above Replacement as calculated by Baseball Reference. A stat that attempts to measure a player’s contributions in all facets of the game and quantify how many more wins that player contributed than a “replacement level” player would have (a replacement level player being a hypothetical “AAAA player” every team has in its farm system.. In MLB history, only six players ever have matched or exceeded his fWAR at age-22 or younger, and only three have matched or exceeded his bWAR. Only three others ever had season with at least 9 fWAR by age-22. The names on the list are unsurprisingly impressive.
Only four players 22 or younger have hit more home runs in a season than the 42 Harper hit in 2015, and only two of those seasons are truly close to Harper’s (and Gonzalez’s 1992 is vastly inferior).
That’s right, in order to find an overall offensive performance superior to Harper’s 2015 by a player the same age, we only have the final season in which a player hit .400 (by the way, how amazing is it that Williams did that at 22 years old? Yet another hashmark in the “Greatest Hitter of All Time” column).
Overall, Harper has now compiled 19.4 fWAR by the end of his age-22 season. Only 14 players in MLB history have had 19+ by that point. Of those 14, the only player eligible for the Hall of Fame and not elected is Phillies great Sherry Magee.
Only six players in MLB history hit more home runs by age-22 than Harper: the four on the list above (Ott, Mathews, A-rod, Trout) plus Tony Conigliario (104, fastest to 100 in AL history – told you he was good) and Frank Robinson (98). And only nine players have matched or exceeded Harper’s 147 wRC+ at age-22 (with at least 1350 PA): eight on the list above plus Albert Pujols (with 154).
Why the Breakout?
While Harper definitely wasn’t a bust in his early seasons, he also wasn’t producing like he did this year. What then was the reason for this season’s explosion? How did he go from “streaky borderline All-star” to “Top 50 all time production”?
One very simple answer is that he managed to stay healthy. Harper’s always had a tendency to go pedal-to-the-metal all the time, and it’s hurt him (literally) in the past. His career high prior to this year was 139 games (in his rookie season), and he averaged 119 games over his first three seasons. It’s hard to reach greatness when you’re playing less than ¾ of the games.
The bigger reason is a change in plate approach, reflected most clearly in a jump in walk rate. In 2015, Bryce Harper had a 19.0% walk rate – almost twice his 10.4% rate over his first three seasons. While a player can have an aberrant season here or there, walk rate is one of the more stable stats over a player’s career, so this likely reflects a meaningful adjustment.
His walk rate wasn’t the only difference though, since his stats obviously jumped across the board. Interestingly, Harper swung the bat so much better in 2015 because he swung it less overall. While his contact rates were all roughly the same as his career averages, his swing rates were all career lows.
More importantly, his improvement in swing rates was on all pitches, not just on pitches out of the zone. Plate Discipline stats come from two sources (PITCHf/xPITCHf/x provides the raw data by tracking every pitch in every MLB game. and Baseball Information SolutionsBIS takes the raw PITCHf/x data and codes it more precisely – the data is not necessarily more accurate, but more nuanced.) and both show Harper swinging on far fewer pitches than his first three seasons.
Harper cut his O-Swing%Swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone. by 4-6% (from 34.8% to 28.2% according to BIS and from 32.4% to 28% by PITCHf/x) and his Z-Swing%Swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone. by 2.5-4% (from 74.9% to 72.5% according to BIS and from 72.3% to 68.1% by PITCHf/x). This means that Harper wasn’t just chasing fewer pitches outside the zone, he was also more selective with pitches inside the zone.
One conclusion to be drawn from this is that Harper has avoided swinging at “marginal” strikes, instead waiting to unleash himself on pitches that suit him better. This conclusion is born out by what’s happened when Harper has put the ball in play.
Coming into 2015, Harper had GB% of 45%, a FB% of 33.5, and a HR/FBHomeRun to FlyBall percentage. A measure of how often fly balls turn into homeruns for that particular player. League average is usually between 10-11%. Most pitchers average between 9-12% for their careers while hitters have a much larger span, with power hitters reaching rates of 15-20% or more, and slap hitters averaging as low as 1-2%. A large deviation in this stat from a player’s career norm is a red flag that they’re either getting lucky or unlucky over the course of a specific season. rate of 16.6%. He had a Soft hit rate of 14.4%, a medium hit rate of 53.7%, and a hard hit rate of 31.9%. In 2015, most of those numbers shifted dramatically:
This season, Harper hit fewer ground balls (38.5% compared to a career rate of 45%) and more flyballs (39.3% compared to a career rate of 33.5%). Since flyballs turn into outs more often than ground balls, that’s not necessarily a good change unless those additional flies are hit very well. In Harper’s case, they definitely were.
Harper hit fewer soft (11.9% v. a career rate of 14.4%) and medium (47.2% to 53.7%) balls, upping his hard hit rate significantly (40.9% v. a career rate of 31.9%). The large shift in medium hit balls is likely the biggest effect of his increased discipline on pitches within the zone, turning “okay” hits on “okay” strikes into hard hit balls off of “fat” strikes.
The end result of all of this is a massive increase in his HR/FB rate, jumping from a career rate of 16.6% to 27.3%. It’s also reflected in his BABIPBatting Average on Balls In Play. As the name suggests, this is the percentage of balls put into play (either by a hitter or by a pitcher’s opponents) that turn into hits. League average BABIP is about .300 and when a player is deviating from their career average by a significant amount, that’s often a red flag they’re getting either lucky or unlucky over the course of a single season., as he improved on his previous career rate of .319 (still above average) to .369 (a mark on par with the likes of premier hitters like Mike Trout – career avg .357 and career high .383 – or Miguel Cabrera – career avg .348 and career high .384).
Are these one time outliers? We obviously can’t know, but jumps in plate discipline statistics usually aren’t one time blips in a player’s career, they’re relatively stable and big changes like the ones Harper made are usually signs of fundamental changes in a player’s approach (the sort of changes that stick around).
That’s even more likely in a player of Harper’s youth, given he’s only now at the age when most players are just getting their first cup of coffee. A learning curve is expected in young players, even ones that hit the majors at 19 and accomplish things before 22 that many players don’t accomplish ever.
The 2015 NL MVP Award
Despite all of this, there are still some who won’t vote Harper #1 on their NL MVP ballot. Some voters create an imaginary (and explicitly refuted by the BBWAA) criteria that an MVP must come from a playoff team. This has resulted in some bad votes over the years (The Trout v. Cabrera votes in recent memory come to mind) and is a concept that really needs to be thrown in the trashcan.
As Dave Cameron put it when writing about those Trout v. Cabrera votes:
“We have been lucky enough to see an in-his-prime Mickey Mantle in modern times, and instead of celebrating that, we’ve spent Novembers explaining why his teammate’s inferiority should keep him from winning an individual award.”
Even working from the underlying premise of the “no playoffs = no MVP” position, the logic on this one should be relatively easy:
- If winning is the primary goal, then anything that contributes to winning is valuable.
- If baseball is a team sport, then individuals do not win or lose by themselves but only contribute to (or detract from) wins.
- If winning is valuable, then players that contribute more to team wins provide more value.
- If individuals perform to help their team win, then individuals that perform better help their team more in the goal of winning.
- Given: “winning matters”, and “baseball is a team sport”, and “players perform to help their team win”, then players that perform better provide more value.
As discussed at the top of the article, Bryce Harper lead the NL in HR, Runs, OBP, Slugging, wRC+, and WAR. He was second in batting average (by 3 points to Dee Gordon, who hit 38 fewer HR, scored 30 fewer runs, and drove in 53 fewer), and 5th in RBI (of the four ahead of him, only one was within 20 runs scored of Harper, only one was within 8 home runs or 75 points in SluggingIf we look at Speed Adjusted Slugging (SaSlg), Goldschmidt also sneaks within 75 points of Harper, and only one was within 70 points in OBP or 40 points in AVG – and each one of those was a separate player).
To vote for any player other than Harper is to punish him for the fact that his teammates collectively produced 9.8 fWAR as hitters (yes, all 30 non-Harper players produced only 0.3 more WAR than Harper did by himself).
For comparison, all the Philadelphia Phillies produced 8.7 WAR and all the Atlanta Braves produced 12.3 WAR (Excluding Freddie Freeman, Atlanta players produced 9.5 WAR as hitters).
In 2015, the Nationals were 3rd in the NL in runs scored, the Braves were last, and the Phillies 3rd from last. The Nationals were 5th in wRC+ and the Braves and Phillies were tied for 2nd to last. The difference between the Nationals’ offense – sitting in the top 1/3 of the National League – and the Braves or Philles at the very bottom of the league was roughly “One (1) Bryce Harper.”
Baseball Reference projects that, assuming league average pitching and defense, a lineup of nine Bryce Harpers would finish the season with an .855 winning percentage. That’s first in MLB by quite a bit. There’s as big a gap between Harper at #1 and Mike Trout at #4 (the AL leader) as there is between Trout and the #16 hitter, Michael Brantley.
If a voter is using a definition of “value” that reduces a player’s value because his teammates are so bad that his efforts are the difference between a team finishing in the top 1/3 of the league in offense and the bottom 1/3, then that voter’s definition of “value” is poorly constructed indeed.
Let’s put it to The Sandlot test: Take any one of the teams that made the playoffs, not just in the NL but all of MLB. If were replaying the season and you gave any one of the ten playoff teams the choice to trade their best player straight up for Harper for the 2015 season, which team would turn down that trade?
The only one that might would be the Blue Jays, since their best position player is Josh Donaldson, who’s one of the two players likely to end up as AL MVP. Every other playoff team (the ones whose players supposedly have the most “value” under the “no playoffs = no MVP” paradigm) would instantly take that offer.
That’s a clear measure of Harper’s true value.
What About the Other Contenders?
In all honesty, there’s likely little chance that Harper doesn’t win the award. Primarily because the playoff teams in the NL don’t have any players truly close to Harper and the few players that were close to him are on teams that were even worse than the Nats. There are a few possible dark horses though.
The Cubs super-rookie Kris Bryant or “elder statesman” Anthony Rizzo (he’s the oldest member of the infield…at 26) could make a run. Both had great seasons for a good team, though they likely cannibalize each other candidacies some. Rizzo had the better offensive season, but Bryant had the better season overall (in the top 15 rookie seasons ever by WAR, top 10 for a rookie that young).
Neither one had a season close to Harper’s though, with Rizzo finishing 50 points behind him in wRC+ and Bryant 60 points behind him. And while Bryant ended up providing solid defensive value at 3B (a pleasant surprise for the Cubs who weren’t sure he’d be able to hang there) it wasn’t anywhere close enough to make up the difference in offense. Any vote for Rizzo or Bryant is a vote for the Cubs as a team, not for the player himself.
Another Cub that might garner some votes is Jake Arrieta. Arrieta was indeed the Cubs most valuable player, and we here at A Very Simple Game are all for giving pitchers MVP votes on equal footing with position players. The issue with an Arrieta MVP vote, however, is that (as we discussed here) Arrieta isn’t actually the best pitcher in the National League this year, and the pitcher better than him also comes from a playoff team (hint: it’s Kershaw). If a pitcher deserves an MVP vote, it’s Kershaw, not Arrieta.
The reason that Harper is likely to take it home, however is the combination of the anti-pitcher MVP vote bias, and the fact that no position player on a playoff team is close enough to let the “no playoffs = no MVP” votes to sway things too much.
All of that works out wonderfully though, because Harper is indeed the best (and most valuable) player in the NL this season (and MLB, for that matter). He put up a season usually seen from players named Ruth, Bonds, or Willliams, and he’s done it at an age when most players haven’t even made it to the majors, much less are making history.