The Post-Hype Version of Bryce Harper Has Quietly Become NL MVP Front-Runner

Abbey MastraccoContributor IISeptember 23, 2021

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper waves to the crowd before an interleague baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The Bryce Harper hype started more than a decade ago. The first time I saw him, he was cranking balls out of Blair Field in Long Beach, California, the same park where the Long Beach State Dirtbags play. It's a tough park for power hitters because of the marine layer that gobbles up deep fly balls and stops them in their tracks.

But Harper, not even 16 years old, didn't seem to have any problems hitting balls through the thick ocean air. 

A year later, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Two years later he was drafted by the Washington Nationals first overall and his star continued to rise. Harper was an All-Star and the NL Rookie of the Year at age 19. 

A teenage phenom and the face of the game, Harper was everywhere. He made SportsCenter with his highlight-reel catches and monstrous home runs. "That's a clown question, bro," went viral. It's still a part of the sports pop culture lexicon today. 

Harper was named the NL MVP in 2015, solidifying his status as the face of the game. More outgoing and flashy than Mike Trout, Harper's playing style came with some controversy from some of the baseball purists, but it gained him a following with a younger generation.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

But then an even younger generation emerged in baseball and the noise around Harper quieted down. Part of it can be attributed to his move to Philadelphia in 2019 when he signed a free agent mega-deal. The loudest noise we heard was Phillies fans booing their own when he got off to a slow start in 2019. 

But between the Phillies' inability to make the playoffs the last two seasons and the emergence of dynamic young stars like Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the American League and Harper's former Washington teammate Juan Soto, his grasp on that "face of the game" status started to lessen. The hype died down. 

But now it's starting to return, and deservedly so. Philadelphia is hanging around in the NL Wild Card race in large part because of Harper's dominance. The nearly-29-year-old has quietly become a frontrunner for the NL MVP Award, edging Tatis as the San Diego Padres have collapsed in the final month of the season. 

DraftKings has Harper as a -145 favorite to win the award and a big reason why is his play since August. The Phillies were two games under .500 at the end of July, but they're currently 4.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the second NL Wild Card spot. In the second half of the season, he has slashed .350/.483/.743 with a 1.226 OPS and 18 home runs. 

Harper also leads the league in OPS (1.051) and slugging (.621). 

Tatis and Soto are also in contention for the award. They boast similar numbers across the board and this stat about Soto says a lot about how remarkable of a season he has had on a team that decided to tear everything down to the studs midway through.

Anthony Castrovince @castrovince

Juan Soto could make an out in his next 45 plate appearances and still have the best on-base percentage in @MLB. @Nationals

But here is the problem with all three candidates: They all might miss out on the postseason. 

Voters, which are members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, have typically been hesitant to vote for players on teams that did not make the postseason. While baseball tends to be about individual performances, voters still value team success highly. This particular award is often viewed as one given to the player that demonstrated the greatest value in getting his team to the postseason. 

It's possible Harper drags the Phillies into October, but the Cardinals are separating themselves from Philadelphia and San Diego in the standings.

St. Louis does not have an MVP candidate. Jesse Winker and Nick Castellanos have had fantastic seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and kept them in the Wild Card race as well, but the Reds might not reach the postseason either (4.0 games behind St. Louis). 

Max Muncy has been impressive with the Los Angeles Dodgers and he'll undoubtedly receive votes. But on a team as loaded as the Dodgers, does his season really compare to Harper's? Muncy's 4.8 WAR would suggest that it does not. A total of 10 other players in the National League are worth more wins than Muncy, including his own teammates Trea Turner (5.7), Walker Buehler (5.1). Max Scherzer has an identical 4.8 fWAR.

Three pitchers have higher fWAR rankings than Harper: Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes, Dodgers left-hander Julio Urias and Harper's Philadelphia teammate Zack Wheeler. They're in contention for the NL Cy Young and it's possible you make the case that they are worthy of MVP Awards as well. 

However, a precedent was set by current voters in 2015 when Harper won his first MVP after the Nationals imploded down the stretch. In 2008, Albert Pujols won it over Ryan Howard, who helped the Phillies not only make the playoffs but eventually win the World Series (voting takes place before the postseason). Two years before that, Howard won it in a year in which Philadelphia was excluded from the Fall Classic. 

Barry Bonds won it twice in two down years for the San Francisco Giants. Alex Rodriguez won the AL MVP in 2003 with the Rangers and Larry Walker in 1997 with the Colorado Rockies.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

More recently, Trout won two of his three AL MVP Awards in playoff-less years for the Los Angeles Angels. His teammate, Shohei Ohtani, is the favorite to win it this year, despite the fact that the Angels will once again sit out October. 

There is no hard-and-fast rule that says the award has to go to the best player on a team that makes the playoffs. Of course, Harper is doing everything he can to help the Phillies reach the postseason for the first time since 2011. In his last 10 games alone he's hit .394 with three home runs and a 1.412 OPS. 

At nearly 29, he may not be the kid phenom he once was. Harper is now a father of two and the face of another franchise. But it's clear he's hungry for more. After a brief hiatus, the Harper hype is coming back.
It should be here to stay with another NL MVP trophy.