As baseball enters the second half of the season — that’s right, despite the fact that the All-Star break isn’t even here yet, most teams already have more games behind them than ahead of them — our attention shifts to the game’s best and brightest, the ones most likely to impact the pennant races.
Obviously, who you consider to be the most important player for the remainder of the season depends largely on your location and rooting interests. If you’re an Angels fan, nothing matters more than Mike Trout staying healthy and continuing to mash his way to his first American League MVP award. For Yankee fans desperately hoping to stay in the race, it might be that the ongoing dominance of Masahiro Tanaka is of the utmost importance. You can do this for every team, really. “Important” is not a one-size-fits-all term.
But if Trout is healthy, he’s going to crush. If Tanaka is healthy, he’s going to mow down hitters. That’s already happened, and should continue to happen. Instead, we’re going to focus on the player who really wasn’t around that much in the first half of the season, is just now back in action, and could play a major role on a potential playoff team. We’re going to talk about Bryce Harper.
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Here’s the thing about Harper: It seems like everybody hates him. No, it’s not quite like how people hate Michael Vick or Alex Rodriguez, a pair of stars with serious off-the-field trouble, but more like how LeBron James is reviled by a shockingly large segment of the sporting fanbase for the simple crime of “being really, really good at his job.”
For Harper, his biggest problem seems to be simply that he’s not Trout, who is arguably off to the greatest career start of any hitter in the history of baseball. If we’re comparing Harper to that, then yeah, he’s been a disappointment, and multiple injuries — he just missed two months after thumb surgery — have limited his ability to be on the field. Harper isn’t entirely without a role in his perception, of course; publicly calling out his manager for his lineup choices, as Harper did to Washington skipper Matt Williams in late June, certainly isn’t going to win you supporters.
Still, to do what he’s done at his age — and remember, he’s still not even 22 yet, and by comparison, Houston’s rookie sensation George Springer is more than three years older — is incredibly rare. It’s so rare, in fact, that we really need to put it in perspective and understand what we’re seeing, which can be distilled into three points:
1. Over the last 100 years, only 59 players have been good enough to collect 1,000 career plate appearances before the end of their age-21 season;
2. Only 12 of those players were more productive at the plate than Harper has been, using wRC+; (*)
3. Of those 12, eight are Hall of Famers. Three aren’t yet eligible (Trout, Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jr.) and one (Tony Conigliaro) had his career affected when he was hit in the face by a pitch at 23.
(*) wRC+ is an advanced offensive stat that takes batting and baserunning contributions and adjusts for both park and era, meaning it can be used to compare a hitter who played in 1999’s Coors Field and one in 2014’s Petco Park, for example, which simple batting average or RBI would not do accurately. As of July 3, Harper’s 127 means he is 27 percent above league-average, which is set to 100.
As that list shows, it’s incredibly difficult to be this good, this young, and not go on to an elite career, health permitting. For the Nationals to get a talent like that back in the lineup after so much missed time is of the utmost importance, considering both how tight their division is and who he’d be replacing.
The Nationals and Atlanta Braves are now deadlocked in first in the National League East, as the two teams have formed one of the best rivalries in the game. Over the past two-and-a-half years, dating back to the start of 2012, the Braves have won the most games in the NL; the Nationals, second-most. After the Nationals took the division title in 2012, the Braves surprised many by running away with it in 2013; now, after Atlanta’s red-hot start to 2014 has fallen back to more expected play, the two are again neck-and-neck.
With that kind of race being set up, it’s clear that every single game and potential victory counts more than ever. Now look at Harper’s expected rest of season production, using the well-respected ZiPS projection system, as compared to second baseman Danny Espinosa’s. (Harper won’t be playing second base, of course, but through a complicated series of moves, mainly pushing Ryan Zimmerman back from left to third, and Anthony Rendon from third to second, the Nationals will get their worst-hitting regular out of the lineup in Espinosa.)
ZiPS rest of season projection (as of July 3):
Espinosa: .220/.283/.361, 7 home runs
Harper: .280/.362/.511, 10 home runs
Obviously, projections are just that, and anything can happen out on the field. It’s also hardly a controversial statement to say that Bryce Harper is a much, much, much better hitter than Danny Espinosa is, even if Espinosa’s defense is solid.
As the Nationals have fought the Braves to a standstill largely without the services of Harper, the possibility of him being healthy and productive for the remainder of the season to upgrade on Espinosa might very well be what turns the tide in Washington’s direction. If he can just learn to keep his thoughts to himself and not upstage his manager, he’ll continue to be a star — and that makes him 2014’s most important player down the stretch.
Follow Mike on Twitter at @mike_petriello