Fantasy Baseball: Buy Bryce Harper While You Can

Harper's numbers are down so far this season, and it's opened a nice buy-low window to land one of the game's best hitters.

My wife and I like to rehab houses. We have owned two as adults, and both times have purchased fixer-uppers and turned them into exactly how we wanted them. It's a labor of love, and in our last project, it involved us living with three kids at my in-laws for almost two months, but we made it work. We aren't likely to be the next Chip and Joanna, but it's a fun little hobby we have developed on the side in addition to our own housing needs.

The reason we love it so much is that for all the hard work, the payoff is tremendous. Instead of buying a house that maybe you like 75% of, we were able to tear down and rebuild it from scratch exactly to our liking. The key to this success is that you have to be able to find that diamond in the rough -- the house that may not look great now but has the potential to turn into your forever home.

Admittedly, this required vision is not something I possess, but l married someone that can spot properties and see the big picture. She has the ability to comb through the nuances and the ugliness and extract what could be an awesome house as long as it can get a little love and attention.

Fantasy sports can be a lot like rehabbing houses -- sometimes a player can look pretty ugly and is significantly under-performing what we expect them to do. Knowing what they have done in the past, it can become a challenge to discern between cutting bait on a disappointing player, and at other times, target an under-performing asset. This distinction is a major key to fantasy success.

There's no way to hide that Bryce Harper is having a rough 2018. If you invested in Harper at your draft, when he was likely a first-round pick, it's been painful to stomach. Take a peep at Harper's performance compared to other fellow first-round draft picks, per NFBC ADP datadata.

As you can see, Harper lags behind nearly every other first-round draft pick in the major categories, including dead last in average (by a wide margin) and runs scored. Does that mean it's time to get rid of Harper, or is there more to the story?

Let's dig in and find out.

The Ugly

When breaking down Harper's season-over-season outputs, there's a few notable pieces that jump out. It's not exactly a secret that this year has been rough, and a recent slump isn't helping quiet that buzz, either.

Season Strikeout Rate Average ISO Swinging-Strike Rate
2015 20.0% .330 .319 10.8%
2016 18.7% .243 .198 8.6%
2017 20.1% .319 .276 12.2%
2018 22.8% .217 .258 14.2%

Harper's strikeout rate continues to rise, but you can say that about the rest of baseball. In 2018, the league-wide strikeout rate is 22.4%, which is up nearly one full percentage point from 2017's 21.6% rate. To give some context on how fast that's rising, batters struck out at an 18.5% clip in 2010.

The batting average is flat-out ugly. It's down about 25 percentage points from 2016, and it's well below his 2015 and 2017 marks. In leagues that average is a category, he's really hurting you there.

His isolated power (ISO) and swinging-strike rate have also regressed. The ISO is down a touch, but it's still well above 2018's league-average rate of .145. And he's just flat-out swinging and missing at more pitches, as evidenced by that uptick in swinging-strike rate.

So there's clearly plenty of negatives here. But can he right the ship?

The Interesting

It would be easy to theorize that Harper's struggles are related to him doing something unnatural -- his current walk rate this year is 17.4%, which would be the second-highest mark of his career if it held up. As a result of this increased walk rate, is he showing poorer plate discipline by chasing more offerings out of the strike zone and less in the zone? And are pitchers actually throwing him less strikes?

Across the board, the data would suggest an emphatic no. Let's look at the percentage of pitches he's seeing in the zone (Zone Rate), the percentage of pitching in the zone that he's swinging at (Zone-Swing rate) and the percentage of pitched outside the zone Harper is swinging at (O-Zone Rate).

Season Zone Rate Zone-Swing Rate O-Swing Rate
2015 38.0% 72.5% 27.6%
2016 38.2% 68.2% 27.0%
2017 42.7% 74.4% 30.1%
2018 38.0% 77.3% 28.9%

Harper's 38.0% Zone Rate shows that he's still seeing a consistent number of pitches inside the strike zone, and while it's lower than 2017's clip, that year appeared to be a bit of an outlier. His Zone-Swing Rate and Out-of-Zone Swing Rate have improved from last season.

So all in all, it looks like Harper has maintained a pretty consistent approach.

The Beautiful

For all of the negatives on Harper this season, there's a lot of positives we can't ignore, either. It's hard to turn a blind eye to a dude that possesses feats of strength like this.

In addition to these prodigious blasts, it does seem like we may have seen the worst of Harper. Let's peep the table below and then examine what it's really telling us.

Season Walk Rate Hard-Hit Rate Fly-Ball Rate BABIP
2015 19.0% 40.9% 39.3% 0.330
2016 17.2% 34.1% 42.4% 0.243
2017 13.8% 34.3% 37.6% 0.319
2018 17.4% 41.6% 38.3% 0.217

Harper's walk rate, as we mentioned earlier, is up, and his hard-hit rate would be a career-best. His fly-ball rate is also a strong mark, but that last column is the real kicker.

The outfielder's batting average on balls-in-play (BABIP) is absurdly low. The league average BABIP in 2018 is .293, which is slightly down from 2017's mark of .300. To take this a step further, between 2012 and 2017, league-wide BABIP has settled between .297 to .300 in every single season.

Harper's career BABIP, including 2018, is .314. While 2016 shows that Harper can deviate from league norms, he's also out-performed that mark in both 2015 and 2016. With a strong walk rate, hard-hit rate, and fly-ball rate, it would lead you to believe that Harper's numbers should be on the rise.

If You Can, Buy Now

Blaming Harper's woes on bad luck can seem like an easy out, and it's his poor start to 2018 isn't all about bad luck. But looking through all of the data available, Harper's batted-ball profile appears solid, and he doesn't seem to be expanding his strike zone to compensate for his enhanced walk rate. If anything, pitchers appear ready to challenge the slugger even more -- Harper's first-pitch strike rate sits at 59.9%, his highest mark since 2014.

What sticks out like a sore thumb is Harper's BABIP. In examining it through the lens of his previous BABIP's as well as the league averages, it's far below what we would expect to see. It's also silly to ignore Harper's opening month, when he bombed opposing pitching for a .404 wOBA, .281 ISO, and 40.3% hard-hit rate.

There's bound to be some league owners who are frustrated by Harper's start. According to ESPN's Player Rater, Harper ranks 48th among batters, and his 1.18 nERD score lags him well outside out the top tier of bats, per our numbers.

Harper should be back on the rise soon, and if you can grab him, you should. While you shouldn't anticipate being able to get Harper at a huge bargain, if you can land him for any discount at all, it could wind up being a league-winning deal.

Harper's batted-ball profile is already dope, and he's bound to see positive regression on balls in play. If you're not price-checking with the Harper owner in your league, you're doing fantasy wrong.