You wouldn’t think it was possible Bryce Harper, of all people doing everything quietly or under the radar.
If there was a way to quantify “most of the career hype” there could be worse things to do than point at the guy on the cover of. was Sports illustrated as a teenager, was voted # 1 overall, won Rookie of the Year in 2012, was named Most Valuable Player in 2015, and then signed a 13-year deal with the Phillies – among 100 other things.
Maybe it’s because the Phillies are two games under .500 in his three years there, thanks largely to a flammable bullpen. Perhaps it’s because the next generation of highly acclaimed superstars like Juan Soto and all the famous sons of famous fathers have arrived to attract well-deserved attention. Maybe it’s because we all understandably can’t stop staring at Shohei Ohtani or because Harper’s RBI total is low, largely thanks to his teammates. There are many ways to explain why Harper is no longer in the spotlight as he used to be.
These reasons may be understandable, but they all make it far too easy to overlook what he’s doing. Harper has a .306 / .417 / .557 line a year after setting up a .268 / .420 / .542 line, making him a top 6 hitter for the past two seasons. He has the third best OBP in 2020-21; he has the eighth best stroke.
Harper is one of only four hitters to have a .400 OBP / .500 SLG combo this year, after being one of only eight hitters last year; combine 2020-21, and the only three such stallions are Soto, Freddie Freeman … and Harper. If you look at his career numbers, there have been nearly 700 players since integrating in 1947, making at least 5,000 record appearances, and his offensive performance is 30th to this day.)
He lives up to the hype and more, so don’t be surprised if we make this unexpected hypothesis: in two months, Harper could be your National League MVP.
Okay, let’s go back for a second. One reason we can even suggest this is because every other seemingly front runner in the award has seen a roadblock thrown in their way.
Think about the big stars in the NL and what happened to them.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is out again with a shoulder injury that may require surgery. Ronald Acuña Jr. is out of the year due to a knee injury. That might have opened the door to Jacob deGrom, except he has been out for a month with an elbow injury and may or may not return this season. Nick Castellanos has been out for weeks with a wrist injury. Trea Turner is currently on the COVID-19 list and trading the Dodgers essentially ends his candidacy anyway; No MVP has ever won the award in a season it was traded.
That doesn’t even take into account the names you would have expected at the start of the season. Francisco Lindor’s Mets debut was disappointing and now he’s injured. Cody Bellinger, the 2019 MVP, had a 2021 that can only be described as disastrous. Mookie Betts had a season that would be strong by anyone’s standards but his own; last month he said in his own words, “I didn’t play that great,” although he’s been awesome since then and has released 1,105 OPS since July 1st. Christian Yelich struggles with back problems; Corey Seager missed a lot of time with a broken hand. Freddie Freeman did in again . transformed the very-good-not-insanely-great player he was before 2020.
If the playoff position is important to you in relation to MVP voting, which is what many voters are increasingly doing Not, Note that there isn’t a single Met or Brewer positional player with a convincing case. (Sorry, neither do you, Willy Adames, though he’ll likely get some solid voting support.)
All of this leaves … the, exactly?
To answer that, let’s take a look at the top 20 list of NL Wins Above Replacement at FanGraphs. We’re only showing positional players because while a historic full season of deGrom would have made a strong argument, it’s hard to see the remaining Cy Young Award top runners like Corbin Burnes and Zack Wheeler getting so much MVP support.
However, there is a big top 4, as you will see, including three players who are injured or traded. Since it doesn’t really make sense to worry about the decimal places of WAR, there is a large group of players in a virtual tie between 3.4 and 3.7 WAR. (We drew a line at 3.5.)
Obviously, voting on awards should and is not a simple “list of WAR” exercises; at the same time, if you’re not in the top 20, you probably aren’t having an MVP season. (Here we apologize to Joey Votto, who has grown strong after a slow start; if he continues like this, he will be on this leaderboard by the end of September.)
To do this, let’s cross out some of the names at the top of the list. Posey is having a fantastic rebound season for the resurgent Giants, but given his own missed time due to a thumb injury and the need to keep a 34-year-old catcher fresh, he’s likely to end the season with only about 420 record appearances. Only one MVP has ever won fewer than 500 record appearances in a full season, and even when Willie Stargell did so in 1979, he got at least 480 record appearances (and didn’t even win directly, shared the honor with Keith Hernandez). .
Manny Machado got off to a very slow start (.737 OPS as of June 15) and has been doing very well since then (1,115 OPS as of June 16), along with a solid defense. But he’ll suffer from the idea of being the third best player (after Tatis and Jake Cronenworth, who is three places above him in the WAR rankings) in his own infield. Harper isn’t immune to injury either – he missed two weeks with a bruised wrist after being hit by bad luck – but Brandon Crawford has made fewer record appearances and hasn’t hit as well, despite obviously adding value through shortstop defense . It won’t be either.
Maybe it’s Muncy who (surprise, surprise) missed the time with an oblique injury earlier this year. Perhaps an unlikely support campaign will begin for Bryan Reynolds, who is having a good season that no one is watching on an uncompetitive Pittsburgh team. Perhaps Cronenworth or Chris Taylor’s multi-position versatility (plus strong thugs) wins, especially since Harper’s defense was not rated well. Or maybe Adames has the story “he turned the team’s season around” behind him. But again, no player has ever won MVPs in a year they were traded.
In a race that no longer has an obvious leader if Tatis fails, the door may be open to whoever has the best history in the last two months of the year.
Harper had one of the best 10 months of his career in April. In July he again had one of the best 10 months of his career. Since June 15, he and Machado have been the best hitters in the National League, behind Ohtani overall.
So, let’s find the rest-of-season projections that sound exactly like this: who’s going to hit the best from this point on, because you can’t just assume the hitters will do exactly as they’ve done so far in the season. The track record is also important. The top 5 OPS predictions in the National League look like this:
.988 – Soto, WSN
.943 – Tatis, SD
.930 – Harper, PHI
.921 – Freeman, ATL
.895 – Betts, LAD
Projections are not guarantees, of course, but you get the idea. Should Tati’s injury prove severe, Soto and Harper are likely to be the NL’s top two hitters for the remainder of the season. Since Soto got off to a slow start before the second half got scorching hot, and he’s currently trailing Harper in offensive production if you look at the updated full season predictions (i.e. the combination of “what happened” with “what is.” ? likely to happen “) you will receive this. You get tatis at the top. You will essentially bind Soto and Harper.
.995 – Tatis, SD (6.3 WAR)
.954 – Harper, PHI (5.1 WAR)
.948 – Soto, WSN (5.2 WAR)
.936 – Muncy, BOY (5.6 WAR)
This, in turn, is based entirely on the idea that Tatis is limited or unavailable because if he is healthy he will win. But if he isn’t, we’re heading for a situation where Soto and Harper are at the top of the NL leaderboards at the end of the season.
But that also has another aspect. We said that many voters are increasingly not worried about the team’s record in relation to the MVP election. That’s correct. But some do and will do.
In Washington, the 49-59 Nationals blew their list at close of trade, and they have no real hope of sniffing even .500, let alone in the postseason no matter what Soto does. Meanwhile, the Phillies are working on an unlikely run to the top of the National League East, sitting just 1.5 games behind the Mets as the teams look forward to a head-to-head match this weekend.
If the Phillies get to the top of NL East after all this, manager Joe Girardi may get some of the credit. The top of the rotation, with Wheeler potentially winning the Cy Young and Aaron Nola having a strong season of his own, will also receive some well-deserved awards. But for those voters who associate “value” with “pushing a team into the playoffs,” it would be hard to ignore Harper’s contributions – especially since a Phillies team making the playoffs should have benefited almost by definition from being more productive Harper for the rest of the season.
We’re not saying Harper will, should, or have to win the MVP. (If Tatis doesn’t come back, I’d probably vote for Muncy.) We say he does can win the MVP and that may not be something you would have expected. (In March, 100 MLB.com experts made MVP decisions. Harper received a single vote.)
After all, it is overrated and underestimated at the same time.