We are now more than a month into the 2019 MLB season and the race for the NL East is starting to take shape. What looked like a strong division at the start of the season has since become a mess with more questions than answers. The Mets have struggled with injuries and quite frankly, aren’t very talented outside Jacob DeGrom, who had an injury scare himself. The Braves have struggled to find any consistency and have been unable to gain ground. As for the Nats, their bullpen woes makes the Phillies’ pen look exceptional and they’ve played terribly against the NL East. The post-Harper Nationals currently sit at 14-21 and are failing to find an identity.
So ultimately, despite struggling themselves towards the end of April, the Phillies continue to sit in first place with a record of 20-15. The team also enters today’s afternoon game in St. Louis with a 7-3 record over their last three games and a run differential of +26.
While the overall success is keeping people happy, whispers of frustration are beginning to creep in about Bryce Harper. The never quick to freak out Angelo Cataldi did the unthinkable and started to freak out about Harper’s contract. Questions are being asked about whether or not Harper can be a “franchise player” over the next 13 years.
The chief concern that Harper critics seem to have is in relation to his low batting average. At the start of today’s game, Harper was hitting .236/.374/.480 with an OPS of .855, all below his career averages. He is also striking out in roughly 30% of his at-bats, an admittedly troubling statistic that should be monitored.
That said, it is foolish to judge a player like Harper based on his batting average. Harper is essentially the model of a sabermatic baseball player. He hits home-runs, he walks and he’s going to strike out. Sure, Harper could certainly only hit .250, but his OBP will remain high.
Even in the midst of a brutal slump Harper’s OBP still sits at .374. It is a full 100 points above his batting average and is almost certain to get higher. Slumps happen over the course of a baseball season and Harper happens to be in one, simple as that. Perhaps he’s off to a good start in terms of breaking it given his grand slam in last night’s comfortable win.
Harper’s numbers will improve, but it is entirely possible that he ends the season with a batting average in the .250 – .270 range, and that’s fine. It will undoubtedly draw criticism from the “old school” segment of fans who think players should all hit .300 but that frankly isn’t important anymore. Ben Revere hit .300 and what good was he? He wasn’t productive because he didn’t walk or drive the ball at all.
Harper may hit for a low average, but the balls he does hit tend to travel a long way and he makes up for his low BA with walks. What difference does it make if he’s hitting singles or drawing walks? The answer is nothing.
The effect that Harper’s presence has on the rest of the Phillies’ lineup can also not be understated. Pitchers not wanting to pitch to Harper is nothing new and really puts the whole “overrated” myth to bed. If he was so overrated he would be attacked more. Instead, Harper is routinely pitched around and makes the pitcher work even when he strikes out.
Long story short, the addition of Bryce Harper has certainly taken pressure off of Phillies hitters – especially Maikel Franco and Rhys Hoskins. Hoskins has found himself in substantially more RBI situations and has taken advantage of them. Hoskins was starting to slump by this time last year as pitchers could afford to focus on and work around him. Now, Hoskins can’t be ignored and is putting together an All Star caliber 2019 with an OBP of .425 – the sixth highest mark in all of baseball.
As for Franco, he found himself on the bubble prior to the 2019 season and has now comfortably settled in to the #8 hole. While his numbers have declined since his torrid start, Franco is in no danger of losing his job and his production is more than above average given his spot in the order. Like Hoskins, the addition of Harper has taken the pressure off of Maikel Franco and allowed him to thrive.
Lastly, Harper’s batting average is especially a non-factor so long as Jean Segura continues to do what he’s done for the last few years. Segura’s batting average currently sits at .320 and has been no less than .300 in each of the last three seasons. With a spark plug like Segura and a patient professional like Andrew McCutchen at the top of the lineup – who currently has an OBP of .371 – the Phillies can sustain a lack of average from Harper.
So ultimately, Harper may be struggling but his overall production will likely be exactly what should be expected. If Harper can hit 30 home runs, drive in 90 and finish with an OBP in the .370 – .400 range, he had a successful season. If he hits .250 it will be criticized, but does not matter in the grand scheme of things.
Baseball is a game where one player doesn’t move the needle all that much. Bryce Harper has a role in this lineup and while he may be slumping, he’s ultimately fulfilling it.