Fantasy Baseball: Is Bryce Harper in for a Rebound in 2017?
It feels wrong to say a player who produced an fWAR of 3.5 to go along with 24 home runs, 86 RBI's and an .814 OPS is a disappointment, but that's what happened to Bryce Harper in the season following his 2015 MVP campaign.
He slashed a ridiculous .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, 38 doubles, 99 RBI's and 118 runs scored, resulting in a wRC+ of 197 and an fWAR of 9.5. This otherworldly performance catapulted the young outfielder up fantasy baseball rankings, and Tristan Cockcroft of ESPN ranked him as the third-best player going into 2016, behind Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt.
After coming back down to Earth by slashing .243/.373/.441 with a 112 wRC+ over 627 plate appearances, experts aren't as bullish on Harper at the moment. FantasyPros' expert consensus rankings still puts him in the top 10 -- but just barely.
Entering his age-24 season (which is unreal because it feels as if he's been around forever), can Harper rebound and produce closer to his 2015 levels?
Some BABIP-Induced Bad Luck
There are lots of variables that go into how successful a hitter is, but if they consistently hit the ball hard, good things will eventually happen. Unfortunately for Harper, that wasn't the case as much in 2016 as it was in 2015 when comparing his batted-ball stats.
There's a noticeable rise in his soft-hit rate and rather substantial decline in his hard-hit rate, but watching his BABIP drop over 100 points is what stands out -- especially since he produced a .352 BABIP in 2014 (395 plate appearances) while producing just a 30.2% hard-hit rate.
The drop in Harper's 2015 hard-hit rate compared to his 2016 hard-hit rate is something to take note of, but that 34.1% is still just about above average, according to FanGraphs. It turns out he experienced a little more tough luck than his peers.
There were 111 qualified hitters who produced a hard-hit rate of at least 30% in 2016, and only seven had a BABIP lower than Harper. This group included Danny Espinosa (.261), Chris Carter (.260), Albert Pujols (.260), Carlos Santana (.258), Jose Bautista (.255), Curtis Granderson (.254) and Todd Frazier (.236).
Of those seven players, only two had a lower hard-hit rate than Harper (Espinosa at 33.4% and Frazier at 31.3%).
One can also point to Harper's decreased line-drive rate (22.2% in 2015 to 17.2% in 2016) along with a combination of an increased fly-ball rate (39.3% in 2015 to 42.4% in 2016) and decreased fly-ball-to-home-run ration (27.3% in 2015 to 14.3% in 2016) as reasons behind such a drop in BABIP, but there was a bit of bad luck in there, as well.
Plate Discipline Is Still Strong
Since he's preparing to enter his sixth MLB season, we tend to forget how young Harper is and how far ahead he is of the typical 24-year-old hitter with regard to plate discipline. His walk rate did regress from the ridiculous 19.0% he posted in 2015, but it's not as if 17.2% is anything to scoff at. That number still led the league amongst qualified hitters, beating Mike Trout by a mere 0.2%.
What's encouraging is his strikeout rate has continued to plummet after a career-high 26.3% in 2014 -- he cut it to an even 20.0% during his MVP campaign, followed by 18.7% this past year. And while it's not necessarily great that he's making more contact on pitches outside the strike zone, his contact rate within the zone continues to improve.
So, he's clearly honed his approach at the plate, and he won't even turn 25 years old until October 16th. Sheesh.
With a 95-67 record, the Nationals were one of baseball's best regular season teams not named the Chicago Cubs in 2016. The pitching staff, anchored by Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, was solid, but the lineup was also pretty good -- specifically at the top.
It included an MVP finalist in Daniel Murphy, a healthy Anthony Rendon and rookie speedster in Trea Turner. The lineup got better this winter with the acquisition of Adam Eaton (although it came at a steep price), and it'll protect Harper that much more.
When Joe Maddon and the Cubs walked Harper 13 times in a four-game series, they felt comfortable doing so because Ryan Zimmerman was the one hitting right behind Harper. They took their chances going after Zimmerman and his declining bat (.642 OPS in 2016) instead of Harper, who entered that series with a .649 slugging percentage.
Roster Resource is projecting much more stability around the former MVP, with Eaton, Turner and Murphy in front of Harper, along with Rendon hitting behind him. It may not deter some teams from continually pitching around him, but having these kinds of hitters in the lineup can only help.
Before Harper became an MVP, he hadn't really put all his talent together in the batter's box. It's possible we've seen his two extremes over the past two seasons, with 2015 being the peak and 2016 being the valley. If he's landing somewhere in the middle, he's easily worth selecting early in the first round of fantasy baseball drafts.
And that's what his Steamer Projection is basically saying -- Harper is currently projected to hit 32 homers, collect 96 RBI's and post a .946 OPS, which would help lead to a 148 wRC+ and 5.6 fWAR.
The expectations are high for Harper because we've now seen what he can do. Could he reach those heights once again? It's possible -- after all, he's only 24 years old, you guys. Even if he doesn't and falls in between the numbers he's produced over the last two years, that's still pretty darn good production, and it makes him a player we can invest in with confidence.