Washington Nationals: The underappreciated season of Bryce Harper

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WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 02: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Cincinnati Reds during the eighth inning at Nationals Park on August 02, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 02: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Cincinnati Reds during the eighth inning at Nationals Park on August 02, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /
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Bryce Harper was always going to be one of the more interesting 2018 report cards. He had a strange but underappreciated season for the Washington Nationals.

The player who ended up dividing opinion the most for the Washington Nationals in 2018, unsurprisingly, was Bryce Harper. Some of the high-level statistics make it seem like he had a sub-par season, but if you dig into the stats he actually had a productive campaign.

He ended the year slashing .249/.393/.496, but it could’ve been a lot worse after a slow start. On July 20th he had a slash line of .215/.364/.465, before he became one of the hottest hitters in baseball down the stretch to make his line more respectable.

Now with the offseason upon us, all Nationals fans can do is wait and see whether their talismanic outfielder returns for 2019. When we look back on his contract year, it should be remembered as another strong season, even if it didn’t quite live up to his incredibly high standards.

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The Positives for Harper

Despite people’s first impression of Harper’s season being a poor one, the superstar was still able to do a lot of damage throughout the season. He finished with the tenth highest OPS, eighth highest wRC+ and seventh highest FanGraphs Offensive Rating in the National League. Having that kind of threat in the middle of the lineup is invaluable, as even though the average was down, he was able to find ways on base and do damage when he did make contact.

Speaking of getting on base, Harper was able to do it at an elite clip. He walked more than anyone else in the majors with 130 free passes and also did it at a higher rate than all other qualifiers too with an elite 18.7 BB%. Just the sheer presence of the former MVP in the box had pitchers worried. He had the second lowest percentage of pitches seen in the zone among qualifiers at 39.1 percent, while only swinging at 26.1 percent of pitches outside the strikezone, showcasing an elite eye at the plate.

Areas for Improvement

Yes, when you look at the traditional metrics for Bryce Harper, they didn’t impress much and are certainly at least a little concerning. The .249 batting average isn’t as much of a concern, as it appears a lot of that may be down to a BABIP that was almost 30 points lower than his career number. We saw some of that correction happening as the season wound down. The 169 strikeouts, which ranked ninth in MLB, are more worrying, as he seemed to peel off his swing early on in the year, so that may be something to keep an eye out for if he re-signs.

Arguably more concerning than the hitting metrics mentioned above was the step back that Harper took defensively. He finished second last in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved among outfielders, but also was dead last in the bigs for UZR/150. This compiles an outfielder’s arm, range and how many errors they made, then scales it to 150 games. Bizarrely, the biggest contributor to him sitting last was his arm factor, which was also worst among outfielders in the majors, despite that arguably being his best tool in the field. It’s only the second time, the other being 2015, that he’s even finished with a negative arm factor, so it’s likely just an outlier.

The Final Grade

After a year that likely would’ve resulted in his second MVP award in 2017, his encore this year didn’t hit the same heights. That combined with his surprisingly woeful defense makes it impossible to give him the very top marks.

However, when compared to the rest of the team, and the rest of baseball in general, Harper was a well above average bat. That makes him worthy of a good grade, while still having the potential to get back to his MVP standard, which hopefully, he will have the chance to do in a Nats uniform. B

B. . OF. Washington Nationals. BRYCE HARPER

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Remember to keep an eye out for more Washington Nationals 2018 Report Cards during the upcoming weeks here at District on Deck.

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