Is Health of Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg More Important to the Nationals?

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2013

Apr 28, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (right) and starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg during batting practice before a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

When Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo wake up in the middle of the night frantic and sweating profusely, chances are that they both had the same dream, one in which both Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg are injured at the same time.

Welcome to their nightmare.

From ESPN's Dan Szymborski:


According to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, Strasburg, who is dealing with a lat strain, could miss as much as three-to-six weeks, the typical time frame it takes for such an injury to fully heal.

With both of the team's biggest stars sidelined, the question needs to be asked: Which player's health is more important to Washington's success, both in 2013 and beyond?

The easy answer would be that they both are, and there's most definitely some truth to that.

But if we define a team's success by wins and losses, then obviously the player who plays more often is going to have a bigger impact, right?

Take a look at Washington's win-loss records when Strasburg has been on the hill:

Year Nats' W-L Record
2010 8-4
2011 2-3
2012 19-9
2013 5-7
Overall Record 34-23

Here's how Washington fares when Harper is in the lineup:

Year Nats' W-L Record
2012 81-58
2013 25-19
Overall Record 106-77

It's close, but Washington wins slightly more often (.596 winning percentage) with Strasburg on the mound than it does with Harper in the lineup (.579 winning percentage).

But what about when they play in the same game?

Surely, Washington must reap the benefits of having its two most talented players on the field at the same time.

Year Nats' W-L Record
2012 14-10
2013 4-6
Overall Record


I never would have guessed that in games when both Harper and Strasburg play, Washington is, for all intents and purposes, a .500 team.

Chances are that you wouldn't have guessed that either, but now you're sitting there saying to yourself, "This is great and all, but you haven't answered the question—which player is more important to Washington's success?"

It's Harper.

While there's no disputing that Strasburg is one of the elite starting pitchers in the game, the Nationals have one of the best rotations around. When you have the likes of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann to lean on, it makes losing Strasburg a bit easier to handle, even if it is for an extended period of time.

Now it's true that not having the injured Ross Detwiler available to fill in for the team's ace will certainly test the organization's pitching depth, especially with the best pitching prospects in its minor league system still years away from making an impact in the big leagues.

But the Nationals have enough live arms to piece together one or two starts until Detwiler returns to action, something that he's getting closer to accomplishing, according to Amanda Comak of the Washington Times:

Nobody's going to confuse Detwiler for Strasburg, but he's proven that he can be a capable starting pitcher in the major leagues, with a career 3.86 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 64 career starts.

The same can't be said about the team's choices to replace Harper in the outfield.

Washington doesn't have a player capable of replacing Harper's production in the lineup on the roster, as both Roger Bernadina (thrust into action for the injured Jayson Werth) and Steve Lombardozzi are fourth outfielders at best.

Via FanGraphs, look at the outfield trio's run production over the course of their respective careers:

Player G HR RBI R wRC+
Bernadina 425 25 105 136 84
Lombardozzi 184 3 40 54 71
Totals:  609 28 145 190 155
Harper 183 34 82 127 132

While I'm typically not a fan of sabermetrics, wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created) is a terrific way to gauge a player's real value as a run producer. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the statistic.

Harper's 132 is impressive when compared to his teammates, but take a look at where he stood among the best in the game this season (via FanGraphs):

Player Team G wRC+
Chris Davis BAL 56 211
Miguel Cabrera DET 55 196
Paul Goldschmidt ARZ 55 176
Joey Votto CIN 57 173
Bryce Harper WAS 44 167

That Harper ranks fifth in baseball, despite playing in significantly fewer games than his counterparts, is a further testament to how productive—and important—he is to Washington's success.

Thankfully for the Nationals, the team doesn't need to decide between Harper or Strasburg. The pair will eventually heal, returning to their respective places as key pieces to the team's current and long-term success.

But if forced to decide between keeping one healthy over the other, the choice is clear.

Bryce Harper is the most important piece to the puzzle in Washington—both in 2013 and beyond.


*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and current through games of June 2. 


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