MLB Isn't Surprised Bryce Harper Hasn't Lived Up to $330 Million Contract

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist IJuly 27, 2019

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 21: Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies reacts after being called out on strikes in the eighth inning during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park on July 21, 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
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It was February 28 when Phillies fans believed the renaissance had arrived. At least that was the theme of the press conference in Clearwater, Florida, where Bryce Harper was introduced the following Saturday as Philadelphia's newest baseball savior, complete with a contract large enough to actually bankroll a half-dozen small-market teams. At $330 million over 13 years, Harper didn't just become baseball's richest player, he also turned into the Phillies' liberator. This was no ordinary transaction; it was a coronation.

Harper was both warrior and diplomat, speaking to the legion of loyalists who cared less about his millions than a second, more salient set of numbers—a drought that's limited the franchise to one world championship in the new millennium and only two in the last 40 years.

The ticket buyers fell hard for Harper. Small wonder. Handsome and articulate, he spoke about parading down Broad Street on a World Series float. With no opt-out in his contract, he and the Phillies are professionally married for life.

How could any fan resist a commitment like that? All Harper had to do was unleash that breathtaking bat speed that turned him into a star by the time he was 20. Not only would Harper lead the Phillies to the NL East's top spot, but he was also in line to become the team's most popular player, assuming the mantle the beloved Ryan Howard left vacant in 2016.

But more than halfway through the season, both Harper and the Phillies have met with mixed results. He's hitting almost 20 points below his .277 career average with drop-offs in home runs and OPS from 2018. The Phillies, meanwhile, are 5.5 games behind the first-place Braves, albeit only a game back in the race for the top wild-card spot.

Despite the spring training hype, the needle hasn't moved all that much in Philly, which raises the question of whether Harper's elevation as a rock star set him up for successor if it was a guarantee for disappointment.

The answer can be found on the back of Harper's baseball card, where there are profiles of two distinctly different hitters. One, the five-tool superstar, voted the National League's MVP four years ago while hitting for average (.330) and flashing lights-out power (42 home runs with a 1.109 OPS). The other, one of a subset of sluggers a rung below the elite, a player who hasn't hit over .256 in three of his past four seasons.

Such was the risk the Phillies took by paying Harper $27.5 million per yearand the fans took with their eagerness to believe he'd be the difference-maker. What was the realistic return on that investment? One American League executive said: "I see a good player in Harper but not a great one. Where he stacks up to guys like [Mike] Trout, relative to that contract, there's an obvious disconnect."

Bryce Harper's sluggish first half with the Phillies saw him left out of the All-Star Game for the first time since 2014.
Bryce Harper's sluggish first half with the Phillies saw him left out of the All-Star Game for the first time since 2014.Matt Slocum/Associated Press/Associated Press

Another industry veteran expressed a similar sentiment: "I would just never pay any player that much money. Well, maybe Trout, but I wonder if the Phillies are thinking, 'What did [we] do?' They made a big splash, got the fans excited, but now it's the morning after and they have to pay him."

While the AL executive made sure to add that none of this is Harper's fault, he also acknowledged that Harper's decision to leave the Nationals brought with it a pressure to perform, especially in a sports-mad city like Philadelphia.

"I don't blame Bryce," he said. "He chased what the industry told him to chaseswing hard, go for the home runs. It's what the industry rewards. But he's not in Washington anymore. He's in a place where you have to be accountable, and he's expected to get a hit every time up."

Harper's history suggests such consistency is unlikely. Wild, volatile streaks have been his career trademark—an all-or-nothing approach that doesn't just describe his swing, but also how he performs on the field. If the Phillies expected otherwise, they made a gross miscalculation, or as another major league executive said of the peaks and valleys, "This is just who Harper is."

Take last year. In early July, Harper was batting .218 as Washington was slogging along in third place, 5.5 games behind the Phillies and Braves. But he hit 70 points higher the rest of the way, propelling the Nationals to a second-place finish in the East. They didn't catch the Braves, but they nevertheless caught and passed Philadelphia.

That may explain why the Phillies wrote such a big check for Harper last offseasoneven though the Yankees, who had more money to spend and a pressing need for a left-handed power hitter who could exploit Yankee Stadium's short right field porch, never seriously considered signing Harper.

(To the contrary, sources say general manager Brian Cashman had "zero" interest, despite the theoretical match. "It never got off the ground; it went nowhere," one executive said, referring to agent Scott Boras' efforts to engage the Yankees. "[Cash] just wasn't into Harper. He was way more intrigued by [Manny] Machado.")

In Philly, Harper has produced the same roller-coaster performance that has become his norm: He batted .325 in his first 12 games and then nose-dived over the next 23, hitting just .195. Harper's average hovered around .250 for most of May and June, preventing him from reaching the All-Star Game for only the second time in his career. Yet, there have been signs of a rebirth.

With a swing reminiscent of some of baseball's most revered sluggers, Harper's hot hitting down the stretch of the 2018 season fueled Washington to surge into second place in the NL East.
With a swing reminiscent of some of baseball's most revered sluggers, Harper's hot hitting down the stretch of the 2018 season fueled Washington to surge into second place in the NL East.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Entering a three-game showdown against the Braves that started with a 9-2 Phillies loss Friday, Harper has batted .295 over the last four weeks. The Phillies are hoping this mini hot streak will turn into a sustained run that lasts into October.

It's during these surges that Harper turns hitting into art. The coil of his bat, the back foot lifting off the ground at the moment of impactin some ways reminiscent of Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron—are worth finding on YouTube. Harper's mechanics are to hitting what Mariano Rivera's delivery was to pitching: almost too perfect for the untrained eye, best appreciated in slow motion.

"I have never been more confident about Bryce getting back to his highest level of play than I am right now," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "He seems content and relaxed. I see him improving. I'm thinking he's ready for a monster second half."

But will that be enough to get the Phillies into the playoffs and satisfy the critics of his deal? Then again, maybe those expectations are too high. Though Harper's first full season coincided with Trout's first, it's a losing proposition for any slugger to continually be compared to the Angels star.

"If you're going to say, 'Bryce Harper isn't as good as Trout,' well, sure, but who is?" said one National League talent evaluator. "There are other ways to measure the guy's worth."

Start with Harper's age: He's still only 26, which means his athletic prime should still be three to four years in the distance. "It's not unreasonable to say Harper's best years are still ahead of him," the American League exec said. "You can't write [2015] off as a fluke this early in his career."

Harper also plays hard, a fact not even his detractors dispute. "If anything, his intensity makes him more prone to injuries," one scout said. "But there's no question he's very competitive, a very fierce guy on the field."

And there's also a certain undefinable quality Harper carries, a charisma that can fill up the Phillies' clubhouse. He's a magnet both for the media and Phillies loyalists. "I didn't realize until Bryce got here what a skilled communicator he is," Kapler said. "He's handled the spotlight the way he has throughout his careerhe always says the right things in support of his team."

As much as the Phillies hope to ride Harper's offense to success, they also hope his confidence spreads through a franchise that has finished within 10 games of first place only once since 2011.
As much as the Phillies hope to ride Harper's offense to success, they also hope his confidence spreads through a franchise that has finished within 10 games of first place only once since 2011.Matt Slocum/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

That's been a windfall for the Phillies, if not in the standings, then at least on the balance sheet. Home attendance has surged by roughly 30 percent from 2018, the largest gain of any team in the majors. Thanks to Harper and the other offseason acquisitionsJean Segura, J.T. Realmuto and Andrew McCutchenthe Phillies are now fifth in the NL at the gate and eighth overall. They were 11th and 17th, respectively, last year.

Of course there's still a part of the equation that's missinga world championship and that toga party on Broad Street. Kapler says, "We're going in the right direction" without having to further state the obvious: The Phillies will go only as far as Harper can take them.

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