<
>

Harper exceeding high expectations

4/24/2013

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:

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.