It’s been a head-shaking season for Bryce Harper. When the big hitter signed his 13-year, $330 million contract before the 2019 season, no one had any reason to think he’d fail to spark a lackluster Phillies offense.
With six seasons as a Washington National under his belt and a string of broken records and accolades dating back to his high school and college days, Harper has always made an impact for his team. But this season, the Phillies are sitting nine games back in the NL East, without the big push they’d hoped for from Harper. Fans certainly expected to do better than a tie for 10th most home runs in the National League.
What’s up with the Phillies, anyway?
In reality, Harper has perfectly respectable stats — .844 OPS and 22 home runs would make many major league players happy. But he’s just not living up to the promise that earned him the biggest MLB contract in baseball history at age 26.
It’s not just Harper who is looking a bit less stellar in 2019. Just take a peek at shortstop Jean Segura’s batting stats. He was .304 for all of last year with the Mariners, and this season, through the beginning of August, he’s hitting .284. Cesar Hernandez had an OBP of .356 last year, and he sits at .329 so far in 2019. Popular pitcher Jake Arrieta had an ERA last year of 3.96 and is 4.64 this season — and plagued with injuries.
Taken by themselves, none of these drops is too serious. But together, it’s showing that the Phillies just aren’t living up to fan’s hopes of a 90-win season.
Comparing Bryce Harper’s season to great hitters at 26
Comparing Harper to some of baseball’s greats at the same age highlights just how short the right fielder has come to measuring up. Alex Rodriguez at 26? He had a 1.015 OPS with a .300 average and 57 homers. The 26-year-old Ken Griffey Jr.? His OPS was 1.020 with a .303 average and 49 home runs.
Meanwhile, Harper sits at .844 OPS with a .250 average and 22 home runs, six of which have come just since the All-Star game (in which Harper did not participate, for the first time in his MLB career). His stats are more in line with, say, shortstop Edgar Rentería — certainly a valued hitter, but not one of the highest-paid players ever — who had his best professional season at age 26 with .874 OPS, a .330 average and 13 home runs.
We already knew that Harper wasn’t lighting a fire under the Phillies’ offense this season. Now we know he’s not living up to his promise as a hitter when compared to other big names at the same age.
Will swing adjustments work?
So what has Harper been doing to fix the problem? He’s tinkering with his swing and recently made adjustments to his batting stance, holding his bat up higher than in the past. After a couple of games, though, he was back to his regular bat-on-the-left-shoulder stance, and it turned out a pair of homers against the Giants.
Harper is known to be a tinkerer. He’s often seen in the batting cages, making changes to just about every part of his swing. He uses a variety of bats, switches between batting gloves and no batting gloves, and otherwise messes with the way he stands up to the plate. His flexibility and willingness to work hard on his swing lead him to set home run records in past seasons. This season, though, as he strives to get something going offensively for the Phillies, he’s not had much luck finding a tweak that will make the difference.
What’s next for Harper?
Let’s be honest: Bryce Harper has a lot of distractions. From his $330 million contract to his lucrative deal with Under Armour to a new baby on the way, the big-hitting right fielder may not have the time or focus on making home runs quite as big of a priority.
What Harper has been doing that’s flown under the radar: Improving his defense. The right fielder has a positive defensive WAR for the first time since his rookie season in 2012. Where he was once only on the roster for his prowess at the plate, this year he’s made 50% of his “unlikely” plays and has two defensive runs saved.
Meanwhile, we’ll have to wait and see if Harper’s recent string of homers becomes his new 2019 norm or if he’ll continue to be a disappointment for the Phillies at the plate.