Harper exceeding high expectations
Take a moment to appreciate what we're witnessing.
Just a year after Mike Trout, then 20, enjoyed a 10.9 WAR (wins above replacement) season that rated among the best in the game's history -- 21st in the modern era, going by Baseball-Reference.com's WAR -- let alone the best all time by a player of that age, we're perhaps about to be greeted by a second consecutive all-time-great of a year by a 20-year-old.
Bryce Harper is treating us, thus far, to that kind of an age-20 campaign.
Think, for a second, about what that means. In the history of baseball, only 10 players have managed a season of at least a .280 batting average, 20 home runs and a 3.0 WAR at the age of 20. Six of the seven Hall of Fame eligibles from that group were inducted (Vada Pinson was the only one who wasn't). The other three: Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, who should eventually make it in, and Trout.
Harper indeed has put himself on that kind of Hall of Fame trajectory, not that that's particularly shocking considering the glowing statements made about him as far back as his high school days in Las Vegas. He is a player whom most everyone has forecasted a future MVP, this columnist included. At the time of our annual baseball summit in January, I said, "If you're asking me to compose my 2014 rankings right now, Harper will unquestionably be in my top 10 overall."
Apparently, I'll be a year late on that forecast.
Harper's level of advancement this season vaults him into MVP-caliber territory right now; and considering the history of similar hitters to break into the majors at as young an age as him, I should've known it might happen. Using Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index tool, the following chart identifies the 10 best 19-year-olds of the modern era, going by WAR batting runs (they define this as "number of runs better or worse than average the player was as a hitter"), then shows how they fared in their follow-up, age-20 campaigns:
|Ken Griffey Jr.||1989||506||.264/.329/.420||16/16||1990||666||.300/.366/.481||22/16|
Eight of these nine hitters (Harper represents the 10th) improved in WAR batting runs at age 20, and Hall of Famers Cobb, Foxx, Mantle and Ott exhibited the largest improvements of the group. And that's the upshot here: Hall of Fame-caliber talent tends to exceed expectations, not to mention deviate from traditional aging curves. For Harper to have even reached the majors at 19 was remarkable, so his prospects as a 20-year-old should've been far greater from a typical player of that age. He's effectively on Ott's career trajectory -- naturally, Ott is Harper's second-closest player comparable per Baseball-Reference.com. Incidentally, Ott managed at least 20 homers and 100 RBIs in every one of his ages 20-27 seasons, averaging 32-124 numbers during that eight-year span.
My mistake projecting Harper this preseason was failing to account for the possibility he could reach Ott's level of year-over-year improvement at 20. I had two significant questions: (1) Would he hit for a high enough batting average to drive his fantasy value into the top 25 overall. (2) Was he likely to manage another 24 steals attempts -- 27 if you project to a full 162-game schedule?
The batting average question was the grave error.
Small-sample caveats aside, Harper's contact-rate improvement erases many of the concerns about his batting average. Through 80 plate appearances, he has a 16.3 percent strikeout rate, almost 4 percent beneath his 2012 number (20.1 percent); tossing in his 16.7 percent K rate during spring training only helps support the fact that he has improved in this regard. Projecting a 680-PA season -- that about the midway point between Harper's current pace in the category (648) as well as the majors' 2012 average for a No. 3 hitter (717) -- Harper would've effectively shaved 26 K's off his seasonal total if he maintains his current rate.
Harper is also making a slightly higher rate of hard contact, another fact that should drive his batting average north. Thus far, 31 percent of his balls in play have been judged hard contact by ESPN's pitch-tracking tool, while another 17 percent have been judged "medium" contact; last season he managed 29 and 16 percent numbers in those departments. Consider that, so far in 2013, 70 percent of balls in play judged hard contact resulted in hits (16 percent of those home runs), and 38 percent judged medium contact resulted in hits.
Perhaps, if Harper was subject to some sort of adjustment at the big league level, we already saw it. Consider that, coming out of the 2012 All-Star break, he endured a rocky, 37-game stretch, but he quickly corrected it to conclude the year:
July 13-Aug. 21: 37 G, .186/.266/.307 rates, 23.8 K%, 10.0 BB%
Aug. 22 forward: 39 G, .331/.390/.648 rates, 18.1 K%, 8.1 BB%
Could this mean Harper is actually a .300 hitter? There's no reason to think he can't do it. Eighteen batting-title eligibles managed hard contact on at least 30 percent of their balls in play with a strikeout rate beneath 20 percent; that group combined to bat .302, 11 of the 18 managing an average of .300 or better.
That said, Harper hasn't completely settled in as a hitter. Hard heat -- fastballs clocked at 94 mph or faster -- continue to fluster him, as he's a .194/.304/.343 hitter in 80 career plate appearances that ended with one. But imagine if he begins catching up with those pitches.
As for the stolen bases, who'd have guessed that that might be the more legitimate question? Harper is 1-for-2 in stolen base attempts through 20 Washington Nationals games, putting him on pace for only 16 attempts all year. He has also attempted a steal on only 8.3 percent of his opportunities (those judged by Baseball-Reference.com), down from 12.2 percent in 2012.
That's not to say that Harper can't regain some of his aggressiveness on the base paths and get into the 20s in steals, but he wouldn't be the first to tone it down in the steals department as the value of his bat increases, if that's the end result. The upshot is that, even if he finishes in the 10- to 15-steal range, his owners aren't going to care if they come with a .300 average and 30-plus homers.
Sadly, I liked Harper -- liked him a lot -- in the preseason, placing him 53rd overall. That would've been his effective 2012 Player Rater finish if we credited him the 20 Nationals games before his April promotion at the per-game rates he exhibited; the concern was that he might bat .260, so I wasn't prepared to push him much higher until I first saw him make these adjustments.
Kudos to colleagues Eric Karabell, who had Harper 20th in the preseason, and Matthew Berry, who had him 27th, and to those of you who got him within range of his No. 28 ADP in ESPN live drafts in the preseason.
Even at those price points, you got yourself quite a value. And it's for that reason Harper has soared to my No. 12 overall hitter this week.
TOP 150 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position at this link. Previous Ranking ("Prev Rnk") is ESPN's preseason ranking among all hitters.
|1||Ryan Braun, Mil||OF1||2||76||Josh Willingham, Min||OF38||67|
|2||Miguel Cabrera, Det||3B1||1||77||Nelson Cruz, Tex||OF39||88|
|3||Mike Trout, LAA||OF2||4||78||Rickie Weeks, Mil||2B7||76|
|4||Andrew McCutchen, Pit||OF3||3||79||Jed Lowrie, Oak||SS8||79|
|5||Justin Upton, Atl||OF4||6||80||Howie Kendrick, LAA||2B8||86|
|6||Robinson Cano, NYY||2B1||5||81||Ike Davis, NYM||1B11||75|
|7||Carlos Gonzalez, Col||OF5||7||82||Jason Kipnis, Cle||2B9||72|
|8||Prince Fielder, Det||1B1||8||83||Aaron Hill, Ari||2B10||84|
|9||Joey Votto, Cin||1B2||9||84||Torii Hunter, Det||OF40||83|
|10||David Wright, NYM||3B2||10||85||Aramis Ramirez, Mil||3B11||82|
|11||Troy Tulowitzki, Col||SS1||12||86||Carl Crawford, LAD||OF41||91|
|12||Bryce Harper, Wsh||OF6||20||87||Eric Hosmer, KC||1B12||69|
|13||Matt Kemp, LAD||OF7||11||88||Josh Reddick, Oak||OF42||95|
|14||Evan Longoria, TB||3B3||14||89||Ben Revere, Phi||OF43||85|
|15||Albert Pujols, LAA||1B3||13||90||Wilin Rosario, Col||C6||99|
|16||Adam Jones, Bal||OF8||16||91||Kevin Youkilis, NYY||3B12||87|
|17||Ian Kinsler, Tex||2B2||17||92||Miguel Montero, Ari||C7||90|
|18||Jose Bautista, Tor||OF9||15||93||David Ortiz, Bos||DH1||97|
|19||Buster Posey, SF||C1||19||94||Michael Cuddyer, Col||OF44||107|
|20||Jacoby Ellsbury, Bos||OF10||22||95||Neil Walker, Pit||2B11||93|
|21||Giancarlo Stanton, Mia||OF11||18||96||Alejandro De Aza, CWS||OF45||98|
|22||Adrian Beltre, Tex||3B4||21||97||Paul Konerko, CWS||1B13||102|
|23||Dustin Pedroia, Bos||2B3||24||98||Coco Crisp, Oak||OF46||104|
|24||Brandon Phillips, Cin||2B4||26||99||Kendrys Morales, Sea||1B14||105|
|25||Paul Goldschmidt, Ari||1B4||31||100||Mark Teixeira, NYY||1B15||92|
|26||Starlin Castro, ChC||SS2||27||101||Nick Swisher, Cle||OF47||109|
|27||Jay Bruce, Cin||OF12||30||102||Erick Aybar, LAA||SS9||96|
|28||Austin Jackson, Det||OF13||29||103||David Freese, StL||3B13||100|
|29||Billy Butler, KC||1B5||25||104||Manny Machado, Bal||3B14||115|
|30||Edwin Encarnacion, Tor||1B6||28||105||Everth Cabrera, SD||SS10||116|
|31||Jason Heyward, Atl||OF14||23||106||Norichika Aoki, Mil||OF48||103|
|32||Desmond Jennings, TB||OF15||36||107||Ryan Howard, Phi||1B16||94|
|33||B.J. Upton, Atl||OF16||33||108||Jayson Werth, Wsh||OF49||108|
|34||Matt Holliday, StL||OF17||32||109||Andre Ethier, LAD||OF50||101|
|35||Adrian Gonzalez, LAD||1B7||37||110||Mike Napoli, Bos||C8||122|
|36||Jimmy Rollins, Phi||SS3||35||111||Victor Martinez, Det||C9||89|
|37||Josh Hamilton, LAA||OF18||34||112||Lance Berkman, Tex||1B17||114|
|38||Ben Zobrist, TB||OF19||39||113||Adam LaRoche, Wsh||1B18||106|
|39||Shin-Soo Choo, Cin||OF20||42||114||Daniel Murphy, NYM||2B12||117|
|40||Elvis Andrus, Tex||SS4||38||115||Nick Markakis, Bal||OF51||112|
|41||Ian Desmond, Wsh||SS5||40||116||Jean Segura, Mil||SS11||130|
|42||Pablo Sandoval, SF||3B5||44||117||Kyle Seager, Sea||3B15||124|
|43||Yoenis Cespedes, Oak||OF21||51||118||Dan Uggla, Atl||2B13||111|
|44||Alex Rios, CWS||OF22||41||119||Jason Kubel, Ari||OF52||113|
|45||Alex Gordon, KC||OF23||43||120||Josh Rutledge, Col||SS12||133|
|46||Carlos Santana, Cle||C2||50||121||Will Middlebrooks, Bos||3B16||118|
|47||Yadier Molina, StL||C3||47||122||Brandon Moss, Oak||1B19||128|
|48||Allen Craig, StL||1B8||49||123||Justin Morneau, Min||1B20||120|
|49||Michael Bourn, Cle||OF24||46||124||Jose Reyes, Tor||SS13||123|
|50||Dexter Fowler, Col||OF25||53||125||Pedro Alvarez, Pit||3B17||134|
|51||Chris Davis, Bal||OF26||55||126||J.J. Hardy, Bal||SS14||129|
|52||Martin Prado, Ari||OF27||48||127||Jonathan Lucroy, Mil||C10||138|
|53||Chase Headley, SD||3B6||54||128||Danny Espinosa, Wsh||2B14||125|
|54||Ryan Zimmerman, Wsh||3B7||45||129||Salvador Perez, KC||C11||121|
|55||Mark Trumbo, LAA||OF28||56||130||Starling Marte, Pit||OF53||126|
|56||Joe Mauer, Min||C4||52||131||Matt Carpenter, StL||1B21||127|
|57||Freddie Freeman, Atl||1B9||74||132||Mike Moustakas, KC||3B18||119|
|58||Brett Lawrie, Tor||3B8||59||133||Mark Reynolds, Cle||1B22||141|
|59||Jose Altuve, Hou||2B5||60||134||J.P. Arencibia, Tor||C12||150|
|60||Matt Wieters, Bal||C5||58||135||Michael Saunders, Sea||OF54||132|
|61||Curtis Granderson, NYY||OF29||62||136||Chris Young, Oak||OF55||135|
|62||Michael Morse, Sea||OF30||57||137||Alexei Ramirez, CWS||SS15||137|
|63||Hunter Pence, SF||OF31||63||138||Lorenzo Cain, KC||OF56||NR|
|64||Hanley Ramirez, LAD||3B9||64||139||Justin Ruggiano, Mia||OF57||NR|
|65||Chase Utley, Phi||2B6||65||140||Trevor Plouffe, Min||3B19||131|
|66||Todd Frazier, Cin||3B10||71||141||Andrelton Simmons, Atl||SS16||139|
|67||Anthony Rizzo, ChC||1B10||70||142||Chris Carter, Hou||1B23||136|
|68||Shane Victorino, Bos||OF32||68||143||Lucas Duda, NYM||OF58||NR|
|69||Carlos Gomez, Mil||OF33||78||144||Michael Young, Phi||1B24||140|
|70||Asdrubal Cabrera, Cle||SS6||61||145||Evan Gattis, Atl||C13||148|
|71||Carlos Beltran, StL||OF34||80||146||Zack Cozart, Cin||SS17||149|
|72||Melky Cabrera, Tor||OF35||66||147||Chris Johnson, Atl||3B20||NR|
|73||Angel Pagan, SF||OF36||73||148||Gerardo Parra, Ari||OF59||NR|
|74||Alcides Escobar, KC||SS7||77||149||Franklin Gutierrez, Sea||OF60||146|
|75||Brett Gardner, NYY||OF37||81||150||Matt Adams, StL||1B25||147|
FANTASY TOP HEADLINES
- Matthew Berry's Love/Hate for Week 15
- Karabell: Week 15 flex rankings
- Yates: Fill-ins for the fantasy playoffs
- Karabell: Rankings reaction