What to Expect From Bryce Harper in 2015

After missing 106 games over the past two seasons, what will Harper’s 2015 season look like?

The problem with being called a “phenom” or “baseball’s next biggest star” as a 16 year-old is that you get criticized endlessly unless you deliver perfection. Case in point: Bryce Harper.

In his rookie season (2012) as a 19 year-old, the dude posted a 4.4 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs (fWAR) and won Rookie of the Year honors. After one season, it seemed like the hype was real.

Since then, Harper missed 106 games over his next two seasons -- roughly 33% of total games played -- and although he posted good numbers (5.1 fWAR in 218 games played), he provided critics with ammunition since he wasn’t having MVP-caliber seasons.

That brings us to the 2015 season. What can we expect from the 22 year-old?

Before we get into this, let me nip something in the bud. The question shouldn’t be “is Harper going to have a ‘breakout’ year?” Entering his fourth season in the majors, he’s one of 15 people to hit 50 home runs before age 22, in addition to winning Rookie of the Year. He has already “broken out,” so let’s drop that phrase please. (Google Harper and “breakout” if you don’t believe people are saying that.)

Okay, now onto 2015 expectations.

Lofty Projections

According to FanGraphs’ Steamer Projections, Harper is in for an overall top-20 season if compared to the results from last season.

'15 Steamer Projection26868011.4%.212.278.363.490.3711384.5
'14 MLB Rank1930392316502518161732

Steamers’ projected plate appearances for Harper is 616 over 138 games played, and the two stats from the chart that jump out at me are his Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) and his Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). These are both stats that attempt to determine a player’s overall offensive contribution to his team, and they place Harper among baseball’s best based on last season’s numbers.

But last season has already happened and these are projected numbers for this season, so how do those compare?

Comparing Harper’s projected numbers with the rest of the league, again using Steamer Projections, actually looks even more favorable in his case. Every ranking improves, some dramatically, like his runs scored and runs batted in. Another big difference is his fWAR which would have been 32nd best in 2014, and which jumps to 20th best in 2015. This is just one projection however, so let’s see what ZiPS has to say.

Harper’s ZiPS projections are not as favorable as Steamer’s, mainly because of plate appearances. If you recall, I pointed out that Steamer has Harper at 616 plate appearance. ZiPS has this total much lower, at 488, or 128 fewer appearances. Because of this, Harper’s home run, runs scored, and runs batted in totals are all significantly lower, as is his fWAR, falling a full point to 3.5. However, for stats that are averages and not totals, ZiPS is basically right on par with Steamer and even more favorable in some places, like his Isolated Power, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

This shows that, while there is a disagreement on how many games Harper will play, his performance when on the field is generally agreed upon.

Can Harper Live Up To Them?

Harper’s career high for games played in a season is 139, coming in his rookie year, although to his credit he played another 21 that season in AAA before being called up. Due to the large amount of games missed the past two seasons, it’s understandable why both projection modules have Harper missing significant time. However, his major injuries have been relatively fluky and preventable (running into the outfield wall in 2013 and tearing a thumb ligament while sliding into third last season), so labeling him as injury-prone might be a bit hasty.

Entering spring training healthy and with an expected move up to the middle of the order (he hit mostly sixth last season), Harper will have the opportunity to live up to and exceed his projected expectations. Whether he does or not will rely on staying on the field -- and not whether he is ready to “breakout.”

We’ve seen what a healthy Harper is capable of -- he posted a .361 wOBA and a 131 wRC+ in the second half last season -- and he showed flashes of being able to take over games (going 5 for 17 with 3 home runs and 4 runs batted in four games against the Giants in the playoffs last season), leaving no questions about his talent. With a move to the middle of a lineup that should pile up runs against the disaster that is the rest of the National League East, Harper is primed to have a monster year.

For fantasy baseball purposes, I understand being hesitant to draft Harper early, but would you rather have him or Jacoby Ellsbury, who is going a full round earlier according to ESPN’s ranks? Give me the guy going later and with the higher ceiling. The outfield position is stacked in fantasy with five players who could be taken in the first round, but Harper could easily finish in the next group of five.

Who knows? Maybe he’ll even be able to retake the title as “best young player on the Nats” that his teammate took from him last season.