Each week, Matt Weyrich discusses the biggest question surrounding the Washington Nationals. This week? Can the Nats rely on Bryce Harper for a bounce-back year?
Let’s get something straight. The Bryce Harper of 2016 wasn’t the Bryce Harper that everyone inside the Washington Nationals organization and out was expecting him to be. By his standards, his numbers from last season are probably going to be some of the more forgettable ones of his career. But even in this “down year,” Harper still managed to put together an above-average season at the plate.
Batting average is an outdated stat and judging Harper based on his .243 mark would be a foolish attempt to determine his value. In his age-23 season, Harper posted a wRC+ of 112. He was one of eight players in baseball to do so at that age or younger. While most players his age are still fine-tuning their talents in the minors, Harper hit 24 home runs and drew 108 walks.
Now Harper isn’t your typical baseball player. This is the teenage phenom that was heralded as a future Hall of Famer before he even started his junior year of high school. He finally showed the world what he’s capable of in 2015 when he was unanimously voted NL MVP.
The drop-off in production last year was obvious. If Daniel Murphy didn’t defy expectations and put together an MVP-caliber season of his own, the Nats might not have won the NL East so easily. Now that breakout star Wilson Ramos has departed via free agency, the Washington Nationals need another impact bat in the middle of the lineup.
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Harper is capable of being that impact bat. While both he and the team have repeatedly shot down any rumors of injury troubles, there is little else that explains how his OPS suddenly dropped nearly 200 points. Perhaps he doesn’t want the Yankees to consider him injury prone when he hits free agency in two years.
Whatever the reason for his down year, the only thing that matters now is whether or not he can turn things around and be that anchor in the lineup. Taking a look at the numbers doesn’t paint a very clear picture.
On one side, his career-lows .264 BABIP and 18.7% strikeout rate indicate that he was seeing the ball well but just got unlucky. However, his career-highs 19.8% soft-contact percentage and 8.9% infield fly ball rate suggest that the balls he was putting into play didn’t have much of a chance of resulting in hits anyway. All of these stats are courtesy of Fangraphs.
I’ve watched Harper progress as a player over the years. One thing that’s remained consistent through it all is his drive to win. He wants to get better and has proved doubters wrong before. There may be rumors about his health and the numbers are inconclusive, but Harper was considered a generational talent for a reason. He’s going to have a spot in the heart of the order reserved for him come Opening Day and I fully expect him to play like he deserves it next season.