It was another one of those days for Bryce Harper. The Phillies needed a win to avert a sweep, and their primest of prime-time players did as he’s done all season. Reached base three times ... Scored two runs ... Crushed a 421-foot laser into the center-field seats ... And walked away with one lonely RBI.
Within the context of the game, the first three accomplishments were the ones that mattered. The Phillies picked up a 2-1 win over the best team in the National League and kept themselves at the top of the division. Their star right fielder provided the offense.
Within the context of the National League MVP race, though, it’s that fourth qualification that might end up mattering most. See, MVP voters love them some ribbies, and Harper is on pace to finish with about 68 of them, which would be the lowest total for any MVP hitter since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, and the lowest for any middle-of-the-order hitter since God knows when. His two-out, solo home run in the first inning Thursday gave him 46 for the season, the same number as Alec Bohm, whose OPS is a cool 226 points lower than Harper’s. It was Harper’s 19th solo home run of the season. He has 21 total.
Old school baseball logic says that RBIs matter because the game goes to the team with the highest run total. We heard it nonstop when Ryan Howard was doing his thing. But Harper’s season to date has exposed the gaping void in that line of reasoning. He’s hitting .317 with men on base, .311 with runners in scoring position. And, yet, he’s on pace to become the first player in the integration era to finish a season with at least 590 plate appearances, 30 home runs, a .950 OPS, and fewer than 70 RBIs.
The problem isn’t Harper’s clutchness, or his situational awareness. The problem is that he has seen fewer men on base than a cosmonaut on Mir. As of Thursday morning, he’d been to the plate 395 times in 2021, and he’d had runners in scoring position in exactly 78 of them. To put that in perspective, 169 major league hitters have had more plate appearances with runners in scoring position. That’s an average of nearly six hitters per major league team. And that’s absurd, because Harper ain’t exactly batting leadoff for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. He’s hitting in the middle of a lineup that entered Thursday ranked seventh in the National League in runs per game.
Randomness is part of what makes baseball interesting, and part of what makes it infuriating. Which makes Harper’s season the most baseball of seasons. Nobody can dispute his value, within the context of the Phillies or the National League as a whole. Heading into Thursday, his .969 OPS ranked third in the National League behind Fernando Tatis Jr. (1.024) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (.990). His 164 OPS+ ranked second behind Tatis. He ranked second in on base percentage (.431), fifth in slugging percentage (.560), 13th in stolen bases (12), 17th in home runs (20). All told, Baseball-Reference.com credited him with 3.9 offensive Wins Above Replacement, which ranked fifth in the NL.
“Let’s let this month-and-a-half play out and see where his numbers are at, but he’s playing like an MVP,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said, “I can tell you that.”
The good news is, voters have deemphasized RBIs in recent years, as one of Harper’s teammates can attest. Back in 2013, Andrew McCutchen won the NL MVP despite finishing with a mere 84 RBIs. In 2017, Jose Altuve won the award in a year in which he drove in 81 runs despite spending the vast majority of the season hitting in the three-hole. Dustin Pedroia won the AL MVP in 2008, when he finished with 83 RBIs.
“I definitely thought RBIs would hurt me that year,” said McCutchen, who hit .317/.404/.508 that year, one of four straight in which he finished in the top five in NL MVP voting, “but when you base a player’s performance off of WAR, I don’t think RBI totals matter as much as they used to.”
Said Girardi, “I don’t think it’s the most important thing anymore.”
If Harper plays 45 of the Phillies’ last 47 games and averages 4.5 plate appearances per game, his current pace would see him finish with 30 home runs and 68 RBIs in 597 plate appearances. That would make him just the third player in the integration era to hit 30-plus home runs with a .900-plus OPS in 590-plus plate appearances while finishing with fewer than 70 RBIs. Hanley Ramirez did it in 2008, hitting 33 home runs with a .940 OPS in 693 plate appearances. Brook Jacoby did it in 1987, hitting 32 homers with a .928 OPS in 620 plate appearances. Ramirez finished 11th in MVP voting. But Ramirez batted at the top of the order in all but 71 of his plate appearances. The fewest RBIs for player with at least 590 plate appearances, 30 home runs and a .950 OPS was Mike Trout’s 79 in 2018. Trout finished second in the MVP voting.
Harper? He doesn’t seem too caught up in the numbers.
“My last two weeks haven’t been very good, so I better figure it out if I want to get into that competition,” he said.
Of course, those last two weeks have also seen Harper reach base in 25 of 54 plate appearances with five home runs. So, RBIs or not, at least he doesn’t get to vote.