Why Bryce Harper is not the most overrated player in baseball

His career OPS is near great; playoff OPS better than even Trout and Betts

When Mike Trout signed a contract extension worth something like $432 million over 12 years, many said he deserved it, which he probably does.

But when Bryce Harper signed an agreement worth $330 million over 13 years, many called him overrated. Washington Nationals fans booed him vociferously in his return to D.C., with many saying it was more because he went to the rival Phillies than leaving for a better offer. The mayor and some fans even compared him to Benedict Arnold, though he got the last laugh.

That’s part of fandom. Fans are going to be hurt when top players leave, especially to a division rival. That’s understandable.

What’s not understandable is the results of an anonymous players poll in March 2019, which chose Harper as the most overrated player in Major League Baseball by an overwhelming margin. It’s not understandable to claim, as some do, that it’s mostly Harper’s fault that the Nats couldn’t get past the first round of the playoffs in four tries.

Many people point to Harper only having one truly great year — in 2015 when he was NL MVP. Some think he is too much of a hot dog, while others see his brashness as confidence.

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Bryce Harper during his MVP year in 2015. Photo by John Mena, Creative Commons

Harper came on the scene in 2012 as one of the most hyped rookies in years. The hype is not his fault, but in such an atmosphere, it is almost impossible to live up to many people’s expectations.

The Nats made the playoffs that year for the first time since the franchise was in Montreal. That was the same year that fellow Nats phenom Stephen Strasburg, an ace who had a 3.16 ERA, was shut down for the playoffs in a controversial decision by GM Mike Rizzo.

In the NLDS, Harper only went 3 for 23. But two of his hits were a home run and triple that helped the Nats to an early 6–0 lead in the deciding Game 5. Gio Gonzalez, Drew Storen, and other pitchers proceeded to blow that game. Had those pitchers performed to merely average standards, Harper and the Nats would not have to deal with the can’t-win-in-the-playoffs narrative. Then-Nats manager Davey Johnson believes that had Strasburg been available for the playoffs, that team would have made the World Series.

The Nats next made the playoffs in 2014, losing to the Giants in four games. Harper shined with a .294/.368/.882 line, either scoring or driving in all but one of his team’s nine runs in the series. In Game 2, then-manager Matt Williams made the ill-advised decision to take Jordan Zimmermann out of the ninth inning in favor of Storen, who blew another big moment. In the final game, Williams inserted little-used Aaron Barrett rather than Strasburg or Tyler Clippard. Barrett gave up the losing run.

In the next two chances in 2016 and 2017, the Nats again made it to Game 5s. Harper was impacted by injuries, but in those two games, he went 3 for 7 with a double and sacrifice fly. Nats’ pitchers again blew leads in both games. They weren’t helped by bizarre calls, such as not calling an obvious catcher’s interference in the 2017 contest. And then-manager Dusty Baker could have made better decisions, such as starting a rested Tanner Roark in 2017, instead of the nerve-wracking Gonzalez.

In 19 playoff games with the Nats, Harper’s batting average was only .211. But he had five home runs and his on-base, plus slugging percentage — a stat that many like better than batting average since it measures both the ability to get on base and hit for power — was an above-average .801. That was about 100 points below his regular season career OPS of .903, which is considered a great mark.

Among his teammates who started, only Michael Taylor [1.047], Daniel Murphy [.861] and Ryan Zimmerman [.838] had a better OPS in playoff games with the Nats. Taylor’s came in mostly the 2017 series, while Murphy’s was in 2016–17. Only Zimmerman played in all four series like Harper.

Jayson Werth, who had a career postseason OPS of .893, did most of that damage with the Phillies. With the Nats, he could only manage a below-average .664, though he did have a game-winning homer in the 2012 NLDS. Anthony Rendon, who has a regular season OPS of .834, only managed .675 in three postseason series. Trea Turner, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Danny Espinosa, Wilson Ramos and others followed that below-average trend.

Many say Trout deserves the label as best player in baseball now and even all time. I say he is not the greatest baseball player until he proves himself better in clutch times and during playoffs. That’s when it counts, when you are tired from a long grind of a season but you still perform better than you did during the dog days.

In eight years with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Disneyland, etc., Trout’s team has only made the playoffs once. While there, he went one for 12 as his favored team lost to the wildcard Royals in three straight games. That’s not exactly living up to being the best in baseball.

In Game One of that 2014 ALDS series, Trout twice batted with a tie score and a runner on. He twice recorded outs, with the latter time in the bottom of the tenth inning. In Game Two, Trout again recorded a weak out in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game. The Royals won both in extra innings and took the third game in an 8–3 blowout. Granted, that result wasn’t just his fault — Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were a combined two for 25 — but Trout has to take his share of the blame.

As for regular season performances when it really counts, Trout was listed second in a ranking of “Least Clutch MLB Superstars of 2018,” behind only the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton. Even some Angels fans questioned whether Trout was clutch as he seemed to falter down the stretch in 2018 when the team needed him during a wildcard bid. He also got hurt down the stretch in 2019.

Look at how Harper has fared against some of his contemporaries in playoff performance. Some like the OPS+ stat better than regular OPS since the former adjusts for ballparks and eras. But since Baseball Reference doesn’t include OPS+ for postseason games, I’m stuck with using just plain OPS there.

Player ……… Reg career OPS/ OPS+ ………… Playoffs OPS
Paul Goldschmidt
….. .930 / 145 ……………………. 1.076
Albert Pujols ………... .934/ 149 …………….………. 1.030
George Springer …… .824/ 128 ……………………. 1.026
Aaron Judge …..…… .963/ 153 …………………….. .994
J.D. Martinez ………. .887/ 138 ………….………….. .925
Justin Turner ……… .828/ 127 ……………………… .923
Miguel Cabrera …… .943/ 150 ………………..…….. .885
Jose Altuve …………. .818/ 126 …………………….. .814
Bryce Harper ……….. .897/ 137 …………….………. .801
Josh Donaldson ……. .874/ 138 …………………….. .788
Yasiel Puig ……………. .825/ 125 ………………..…. .780
Christian Yelich ……… .845/ 131 ……………………. .772
Yoenis Cespedes ……… .826/ 126 ………………….. .699
Robinson Cano ……… .847/ 126 ……………………. .686
Giancarlo Stanton ..… .905 / 143 ……………………. .654
Mookie Betts ………. .888/ 134 ……………………. .654
Manny Machado …… .822/ 121 …………………… .650
Buster Posey ………… .837/ 131 ……………..……. .649
Mike Trout …………… .990/ 175 …………………… .600
Joey Votto …………. .957/ 155 …………………….. .574
Nolan Arenado ……… .886/ 121 ……………………. .507
Jason Heyward …….. .757/ 104 …………………….. .447

An OPS above .900 is considered great, while above .767 is better than average. Anything lower than a .700 is considered below average with below .633 poor.

So if playoffs are when stars most need to perform, it looks like numerous big names — including Trout, Betts, Machado, Votto, and Stanton — are more overrated than Harper in that area.

That extends to pitchers. Clayton Kershaw is dominant in the regular season with a career 2.39 ERA and 1.002 WHIP. But in 30 playoff games with the Dodgers, his ERA has fallen to 4.32 and WHIP to 1.092.

Some will say it’s a small sample size in the playoffs. But that is still when the games really count, even if it’s only three or four games.

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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