As our offseason coverage kicks into high gear, we’re going to review each significant player on the Nationals roster. We continue today with Bryce Harper, whose eventful season on the field is now going to be followed by an eventful offseason at home.
PLAYER REVIEW: BRYCE HARPER
Age on opening day 2019: 26
How acquired: First-round pick, 2010 draft
MLB service time: 6 years, 159 days
2018 salary: $21.625 million
Contract status: Free agent
2018 stats: 159 G, 695 PA, 550 AB, 103 R, 137 H, 34 2B, 0 3B, 34 HR, 100 RBI, 13 SB, 3 CS, 130 BB, 169 SO, .249 AVG, .393 OBP, .496 SLG, .889 OPS, -10 DRS (in RF), -16 DRS (in CF), 3.5 fWAR, 1.3 bWAR
Quotable: “Being able to have a career high and play in 159 games, that’s what I said in the beginning: All I want to do is stay healthy. If I stay healthy and do the things I can, the numbers will be there. Plugged along, and no worry in me. Just tried to play the best game I could every single day, and I was able to do that.” - Harper
2018 analysis: Everyone knew this was going to be an eventful and hugely significant season for Harper. Few could have foreseen just how eventful it would be, though. Or certainly how up and down it would be.
Harper reported for spring training and immediately insisted he wouldn’t be discussing his pending free agency at all in public. The message was clear: His focus would be entirely on the field. Whether he actually was able to keep that focus where it needed to be is a fair question. For 3 1/2 months, he was not a very good ballplayer, at least not by the lofty standards he has always set for himself.
Though he drew a ton of walks early on, Harper became more impatient at the plate, perhaps sensing the Nationals’ injury-plagued lineup desperately needed him to drive in runs more than score them. Problem is, he began chasing pitches all over the place, especially up in the zone. His strikeout rate soared. He rarely hit the ball to the opposite field. Quite frankly, he gave away a bunch of at-bats in a manner we’d never seen from him before.
As the All-Star break arrived, Harper found himself batting a paltry .214 with a .365 on-base percentage that was boosted by his walk-heavy April. And then came the turning point. Unable to avoid questions about his future during All-Star Game festivities in D.C., he began to open up. He decided to embrace the Home Run Derby spectacle and proceeded to win the event in thrilling fashion and then turned emotional afterward talking about what it meant to do this in front of Nationals fans and employees.
Harper opened the second half a much more relaxed player, and wouldn’t you know he rediscovered himself in the process. He stopped chasing pitches out of the zone. He hit the ball the other way. He took his walks. And after hitting .300 with a .434 on-base percentage and .972 OPS in the second half, he wound up finishing the season with a career-high 100 RBIs and 130 walks to go along with 103 runs, 34 doubles and 34 homers.
The only aspect of Harper’s game that didn’t improve was his defense, which remained a problem area all season. He played more innings in center field than he had since his rookie season and rated as one of the worst fielders in baseball at the position. Of greater concern, he also rated among the worst in his more natural position in right field. His season-ending Defensive Runs Saved rating of minus-26 at all outfield positions was second-worst in the majors, ahead of only the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon.
2019 outlook: It’s tough to present a thorough outlook of Harper’s next season when we have no idea where he’ll be playing. So let’s look at this two ways: the outlook if he re-signs with the Nationals, and the outlook if he signs elsewhere.
If he comes back to D.C., you’d have to imagine Harper would show up for spring training relaxed and feeling less pressure than he has in a while. Yes, he’d feel pressure to help carry the Nationals to a level they have yet to reach, but on an individual level he’d probably be a little less stressed about his numbers or what effect they’ll have on him.
If he signs elsewhere, you’d have to imagine Harper would show up for spring training and be faced with a mountain of pressure unlike any he’s faced in the past. He’ll be the center of attention. He’ll be tasked not only with living up to his contract on a personal level, but also winning with his new team. If he gets off to a rough start (depending on where he plays), he’ll be subject to intense scrutiny.
None of this, of course, is to suggest it’s a simple decision for Harper to re-sign with the Nats. For one thing, it’s not entirely his decision. For another, he’s lived his entire baseball life under the spotlight and has never shied from it. The pressure of living up to a huge contract with a new team in a new city might be just what he needs to take his game to another level.
Or perhaps Harper really does prefer the comfort of the only professional franchise he’s ever known and wants to spend the rest of his career in Washington.
Nobody really knows yet how this all will play out. We do know that wherever Harper spends his 2019 season, it’s going to be fascinating to observe.