What would the Nationals outfield look like without Bryce Harper? Would it look like sadness, or the death of hope and joy? Well, neither actually, which is why the Nats should say goodbye to their fashion model superstar and embrace their exciting new future.
Yes – Bryce Harper is exciting and a great draw as well as a productive offensive force. Losing him from any roster will hurt. But the Washington Nationals are one of the few teams who are in position to move on gracefully from his departure. This may be better suited for a discussion of the Most Valuable Player Award, but if you think about teams absorbing the loss of a single player and what that would mean to their ability to compete, it would seem to be an important part of the MVP discussion. Since the term, “valuable” is part of the name of the award, context comes into play. If the award was the Best Player award then there would be no need to look at the team at all and one large layer of context would become moot. But value is a context dependent term so there are many pieces that define value from the most obvious – performance – to the more esoteric like positional scarcity and organizational depth (which is tied to scarcity), as well as things like strength of the team around the player. If I am a 7 WAR player surrounded by two 6 WAR players and a 5 WAR player then am I as valuable to a team as a 6 WAR player on a team with no other players with a WAR value above 4? The answer to that question depends on your own personal beliefs – kind of like how you feel about pineapple on pizza and probably equally likely to incite passionate argument. The Nationals have to be thinking about all of these things as the day comes when they have one last chance to sign Bryce Harper after he has received a number of contract offers from other teams – other teams with more money than the Nationals. So let’s start with Harper, using WAR and wRC+ to analyze him as a hitter and as a whole player. Once we are clear about what he is then we can look at what a post-Harperian outfield would look like.
Starting with WAR, Harper has been a regular since he was 19 in the 2012 season so we have 7 seasons to examine.
|Season (Age)||WAR||WAR Ranking|
The outliers are his 2015 season when he produced 9.3 WAR and lead all of baseball, and his 2014 season when he was only good for 1.6 WAR. He is about to play a season as a 26 year old so there may very well be improvement left in him. However if you just look at what he is now then he is a 4 WAR player which is Hall of Fame level production. Let’s say Harper plays for 18 seasons and averages 4 WAR – that puts him around 72 WAR – that’s Derek Jeter, Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Reggie Jackson territory. WAR includes all aspects of his game, and Harper’s WAR is hurt by his mixed defensive metrics, but his offensive profile is a bit mixed too as his batting average has varied quite a bit from a high of .330 in 2015 to a low of .243 in 2016. Harper now has two seasons above .310 and two seasons below .250 – and that’s just in his last four seasons! Remember that Harper just played his age 25 season so he is still somewhat of a work in progress – weird, I know to talk about a player with 184 home runs that way, but that is why Harper’s contract situation is so unusual. We don’t often see players reach free agency with so much more development potential. For a finer look at just his offense, let’s look at Harper’s wRC+ and only take into account his ability to create runs in a neutral environment.
|Season (Age)||wRC+||wRC+ Rank|
Harper’s “offense only” profile still has a lot of up and down to it with the outlier happening in 2015 when he created 97% more runs than the average major leaguer. At this point in his career, Harper can be counted on to produce somewhere around 140 wRC+ which would make him a top 20 hitter in most seasons, with the possibility to be the best hitter in all of baseball or drop to the top 75.
Let’s quickly address Harper’s defense. It is generally agreed upon that defensive metrics are the least accurate of all the statistics. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful, just that it is important to look a little deeper and take attempts to turn defense into just one number with a grain of salt. So let’s look at two of those grains of salt first. Here is Harper’s defensive career as an outfielder (mostly in right) reduced to three stats.
|Season (Age)||dWAR (all outfield positions)||DRS (In right only)||UZR/150 (in right only)|
All three stats above reduce fielding to runs saved so that you can compare. Negative values mean the player cost the team that many runs. Depending on which number you peruse, Harper looks like an average defender in most seasons – maybe a little better at times and sometimes not so great. Last season looks like quite a large outlier on the negative side of the ledger. So here is one more stat to look at to give that ugly 2018 some perspective. Since 2012, Nat’s pitchers have increased their strikeout rate by about one k per nine innings cutting into the number of balls hit to Harper in right field. So Harper’s chances have dropped making any slips in play stand out even more. Looking at one more set of numbers – Inside Edge Fielding which puts every ball hit near a fielder into buckets based on their perceived difficulty. There are six groups ranging from “Routine” to “Impossible”. Over the last two seasons, Harper has made all 295 plays that were categorized as routine. In 2018 there were only 17 balls in total that fell into the next three most difficult categories – “Likely”. “Even”, and “Unlikely”. That means that not making a couple of those plays for whatever reason would have a disproportionately large impact on his defensive numbers. In fact, he had his worst numbers in two of those three categories. Basically, yes, he had a rough year with the glove, but it wasn’t the disaster that his DRS, UZR, and dWAR made it out to be. It is likely that Harper will return to his average numbers next year unless he gets unlucky – it is unlikely that he turned into a horrible fielder as a 25 year old. Basically, he is an average fielder who is a bit volatile as a hitter, but who has a very high floor and a tremendous ceiling. So that’s Harper. But if we are looking at what it would mean for him to leave, then we need to look at the likely starting trio and 4th outfielder if Bryce takes his fabulous hair to Philly, or somewhere else that’s not DC.
If you followed baseball at all last season, then you know about Juan Soto, the rookie left fielder who played the 2018 season as a 19 year old. He destroyed minor league pitching, completely skipping over triple-A, then mashed big league hurlers by accumulating 146 wRC+ in 116 games and 494 plate appearances. His 3.7 WAR placed him 42nd in all of baseball even though he only spent about 2/3 of the season in the bigs. His wRC+ was good for 10th. He gets on base, hits for average, and has tremendous power (not to mention one of the coolest nicknames in recent sports history – Childish Bambino). His defense wasn’t great, but you could chalk that up to small sample size. He is very athletic but will likely be a corner outfielder. Let’s say he is an average defender or slightly below at the moment, but he has a chance to be more. He is already a starter and possibly somewhere between starter and superstar.
Victor Robles has hovered between the 1st and 10th best prospect in baseball for a couple seasons now and only an injury stopped him from making a real debut last year. He was kept to 65 games and 265 plate appearances including 66 in DC for the Nationals. 0.5 WAR and 131 wRC+ in a very small sample has everyone excited because that is what his profile has looked like for a while. You can’t exactly extrapolate to 660 plate appearances and say he is already a 5 WAR player, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Robles could put together a 4 WAR season in 2019. Robles isn’t just a bat and can legitimately hold down center field. He is an old man compared to Soto playing last season as a 20 year old, but if Harper moves on it is almost certain that Robles starts the season in the Nationals outfield.
Then there’s the veteran, Adam Eaton. The old man – he played at 30 in 2019 – is a fantastic leadoff hitter. He has lost a lot of time the last two seasons to injury but when he was on the diamond he was a star. Eaton doesn’t have much power but he gets on base by hit and by walk amassing a .394 on-base percentage last season. In 370 plate appearances in 2018 he put together a wRC+ of 123 and contributed 1.9 WAR. His last two full seasons – 2015 and 2016 – he had wRC+ numbers of 121 and 116 respectively with WAR of 5.8 and 4.5. At 30, and taking into account his injuries, it would be fair to expect a 3 WAR season out of Eaton either at a corner or in center. If Robles takes the center field spot and the Nats send Eaton to left, then the veteran will likely be an above average defender.
Michael Taylor is a free agent as of this writing. At 27 he has already exhausted his prospect status and after a breakout 2017 where he produced 3.1 WAR and his only wRC+ above 100 (104), he disappointed enough in 2018 to make it unlikely that he would be handed a starting job by a contending team. He would, however, make an excellent 4th outfielder for the Nationals based on his speed, his power, and his excellent defense. Taylor is a legit centerfielder and could start for almost any team in center if defense was the only requirement. Taylor’s problem is that he strikes out a lot – 31.4% of the time in his career which now extends to just over 1600 plate appearances. So let’s say Taylor signs somewhere else and the Nationals are forced to sign or trade for some outfield depth as their triple-A club comes up short after Robles. There are a lot of 4th outfielder types available – maybe not as talented as Michael Taylor – but it won’t be hard for them to fill that spot. It is unlikely that the Nationals would flip shortstop Trea Turner back to the outfield after a good defensive season at shortstop considering that his one year in the outfield was ugly, from a statistical standpoint. Carter Kieboom is only 21 and just finished a solid season at double-A, so Turner won’t feel any pressure from below for at least another season, but it depends on how the Nationals view the speedy Turner moving forward and whether or not they see Kieboom as their shortstop of the future.
An outfield of Eaton, Robles, and Soto, relies on two young players to develop into steady producers and a veteran to stay healthy. It looks like a good bet from here. Yes, Robles could take some time to become a start but even if he is just average, the Nationals outfield would still be one of the top 10 outfields in baseball. If Robles puts up a 3 WAR season in centerfield and Soto is even close to what he was last year, then the Nationals could have the best outfield in baseball. Harper is going to be expensive – possibly more expensive than any player in the history of baseball. The Nationals could do a lot with that money if they spend it elsewhere or even spend half of it elsewhere. They just signed Patrick Corbin to bolster their rotation – money that clearly makes it harder to sign Harper to a long term deal widely expected to be the highest in the history of baseball. As hard as it will be for DC to cut ties with Bryce Harper, there is no way they should try to outbid one of the deep pocket teams to sign him. Say goodbye to Bryce Harper, Nationals fans, and embrace your new, exciting outfield.