Bryce Harper's Good, Bad and Ugly All Already on Full Display in 2019

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 6, 2019

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper replaces his helmet after taking a swing during baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Tuesday, April 30, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

The Philadelphia Phillies paid $330 million to sign Bryce Harper in March. His is a 13-year deal, so it'll be a good long while before the Phillies' investment can be properly appraised.

One month in, however, it looks like the Phillies have indeed bought themselves a Bryce Harper.

Just as it was for the Washington Nationals—who averaged 91 wins and made four postseasons between 2012 and 2018—the Harper experience has generally been a good one for the Phillies. The six-time All-Star and 2015 National League MVP boasts a solid .841 OPS and six home runs. To boot, the Phillies have the early lead in the NL East.

And early though it may be, it's occasionally been difficult to remember that Harper hasn't always been a Phillie. From his playful interactions with the Phillie Phanatic to his rousing post-homer curtain calls, there have been times when the 26-year-old has looked like a longtime fan favorite phan phavorite.

But then there are the less-than-ideal aspects of Harper's opening act in the City of Brotherly Love.

The most concerning one at the moment is his ongoing batting slump. Harper peaked with a .333 average, a 1.299 OPS and four homers through April 10. In 23 games since then, he's hit just .195 with a .659 OPS and two home runs. 

Harper also hasn't been fielding his position well, as both his defensive runs saved and outs above average are in the red. When combined with his good-not-great offense, his wins above replacement (Baseball Reference version) comes out to just 0.1. 

Harper's low point came in a 3-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers at Citizens Bank Park on April 30 wherein he went 0-for-4 and made a key error. That effectively ended his honeymoon phase with Phillies fans, who let him know what they thought by showering him with boos.

Unless, of course, Harper's real low point actually came at Citi Field on April 22. He was ejected from a 5-1 loss to the New York Mets, for which he was taken to task by teammate Jake Arrieta:

In short, Harper's first month as a Phillie has been full of good times, bad times and all sorts of high drama. 

You know, the usual Bryce Harper experience.

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

If nothing else, the Phillies have no right to be surprised at Harper's performance.

They surely hoped that he would begin earning his $330 million by recapturing his MVP form of 2015, when he posted a 1.109 OPS, 42 homers and 10.0 WAR. But they also signed him in the wake of an extremely poor defensive season, and his offensive output has always fluctuated wildly from month to month, much less season to season.

As for the whole lightning-rod thing Harper has had going on, well, there's inevitably going to be bad noise whenever a star player shrinks in the spotlight. And Harper had one of those all to himself long before he became the most expensive free-agent signee in Major League Baseball history.

Even as a 16-year-old up-and-comer in Las Vegas, Harper aimed to be "considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived." Rather than tone down his personality to a Mike Trout level of blandness since turning pro, he's maintained an unrelenting confidence and an unabashed willingness to express himself.

This has helped Harper achieve a celebrity status that few (if any) other active major leaguers have, yet it's always meant living with a huge target on his back. He's a schadenfreude magnet for fans and the press. Judging by his 12 career ejections, his particular style doesn't do him any favors with umpires. And if they're not literally attacking him, his peers tend to attack Harper by lobbing sour grapes.

To wit, the recent player poll by The Athletic that resulted in Harper being voted baseball's most overrated player was not the first of its kind. One player said: "It's marketing. It's star power. But what has he done besides have one year?"

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Still, there have always been avenues from which to come to Harper's defense.

For instance, Bill Baer of NBC Sports laid out a compelling case for why Harper is actually underrated, not overrated. The ejection that earned him Arrieta's ire was as much an #UmpShow as anything. And while the headlines naturally put the focus on Harper, Arrieta's postgame remarks concerned the whole team.

"I don't think our guys were ready to play," Arrieta said, according to Todd Zolecki of MLB.com. "We were flat. The dugout was flat. The defense wasn't good. We didn't throw the ball well as a staff overall. We got beat."

And for a guy who's easy to dismiss as being a self-obsessed dingbat, Harper has actually given every indication that he's truly committed to being the guy for the Phillies. 

He spoke at his introductory press conference about "digging my roots" in a place "where fans and blue-collar people thrive on winning and thrive on being a family." He's reveled in being an ambassador for the team, including at the big announcement the 2026 All-Star Game will be played at Citizens Bank Park. Even his two low points were swiftly followed by him taking accountability.

"That can't happen," Harper said after his fateful ejection, per Zolecki. "I've got to stay in that game and be there for my team, the fans and this organization. I've got to be better."

And of the jeers on April 30, also per Zolecki: "I'd do the same thing. It's not fun to lose, it's not fun to watch when you're playing that way. [I was] 0-for-4 with two punchies; I'm probably thinking the same thing walking back to the dugout."

Ultimately, all will be forgiven if Harper gets back to walking the walk as well as he talks the talk. A certain degree of anxiety is warranted to this end. He doesn't get many strikes to hit as a general rule, so it's not a good sign that he's now struggling to make contact against the strikes he's swinging at.

Yet there are also signs that Harper isn't fundamentally broken. His .475 xwOBA—a Statcast metric that measures expected production based on contact quality—on balls in play is even better than what he had in his MVP-winning 2015 season. He's also saved his best hitting for high-leverage situations. 

In the meantime, the Phillies can rest easy knowing that having Harper around is at least good for business. His signing triggered a surge in ticket sales, which resulted in the Phillies being MLB's biggest gainer in April attendance compared to a year ago, according to Craig Edwards of FanGraphs.

Between this and the team's first-place standing in the NL East, nobody can claim that Harper's first month as a Phillie has been any sort of a disaster. It's been more of a wild ride.

And, let's face it, anyone who didn't expect as much simply hasn't been paying attention.

                         

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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