The Bryce Harper Paradox; Is Baseball's Most Pursued Free Agent Really Worth Signing?

There is no question that one of the thirty Major League Baseball teams is going to open their checkbooks and guarantee that free agent outfielder Bryce Harper will immediately jump permanently into the 1%. He is considered the number 1 free agent in baseball, and some believe that he is enough to make any team a serious contender. While his monumental payday is all but inevitable, there is one question that should have formed in the back of every single GM’s mind; is Bryce Harper really that good?

Bryce Harper has been “the next face of baseball” for years. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was in high school. Before he was even drafted, he was being treated like a MLB superstar. While the exposure to this sort of environment can be beneficial, as there were no real surprises once he got to the Big League level, it may also have depleted him of his competitive edge. He has been handed things his whole career, as he was a star even in the minors and made the All-Star game as a teenager. There hasn’t been a lot for him to work for so far in his career.

This has shown itself in a number of ways. He has had to be benched for not hustling. He cut up his face when a bat he threw at the dugout bounced back and hit him. There was the Jonathon Papelbon incident where something he said led to Harper being choked by him. Some of this stuff is old, and Harper’s 25 now. Maybe this stuff can be grown out of, but maybe it can’t. There certainly are players who outgrow these sorts of labels, but there are some that don’t. If Harper can’t, it could be seriously detrimental to a clubhouse of a team that is trying to compete.

Unfortunately for Harper, his issues don’t simply end with his perceived immaturity. There are some serious questions as to how valuable he really can be as a player. In 2015, he was far and away the best player in baseball. Outside of that one season, though, he has never really lived up to the hype. For a number of reasons, he has always struggled to be the player that people expected when he was first emerging.

Many believe that Harper is good enough at offense to make any lineup dangerous, but there are some serious red flags in that area. Last season, Harper his just .214 and struck out 102 times in the FIRST HALF. His high walk rate and ability to hit the ball far when he actually made contact were the only things that kept him even at all above-average. It took a huge second-half surge to make his season what it was, and who knows which of those two halves is actually indicative of his real skill. He’s shown both sides of the coin up to this point of his career, which should be a concern given that his hitting is supposed to be what sets him apart from the pack. Is it really worth locking into an expensive, long-term deal for a player whose had two seasons where he played the majority of games and still finished with a. WAR of about 1. A lot of the time, he is a very good hitter, but is he really $300 million good?

The biggest issue facing Harper, however, is also the most well-known. Harper can’t, or won’t, play defense. Throughout his career he has struggled to even play marginally well in the outfield. Although all the skills are seemingly there, Harper has always been a huge negative with his glove. In fact, by Fangraphs defensive metric, he rated as the third worst fielder in the entire Majors last season. Not just outfielder, but fielder. According to Baseball-Reference, he had a -3.2 dWAR. The Nationals would have won THREE more games with just an average fielder out there. These numbers suggest that he is simply always gong to be dangerously bad out there, so much so that it should raise serious concerns for any team not planning on using him as a DH. And since he probably views himself as too good to be a DH, that list is probably all 30 teams. In short, teams should be careful before handing this man a glove.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the last three seasons have been a mix of bad timing and bad luck. Maybe 2015 Bryce Harper is what we can expect for the next 5 or 6 years. Probably not though. More than likely, he is going to continue to be inconsistent and and even detrimental at times. This brings up the paradox; any team looking to add him is looking to stabilize their starting lineup for years to come, but they’re doing it with a player who has never been stable in his own right. I’m not saying that he shouldn’t be singed, or not even necessarily that he doesn’t deserve the insane money he is going to get. I’m just suggesting that GM’s be careful. Nothing is a given, but the past suggests that Harper may never be the player that some predicted, so why pay him like he is?