When Bryce Harper’s peers recently named him this year’s most outstanding player in the National League — a precursor to his NL MVP coronation Thursday night — the MLB Players Association produced a video in which the Phillies star received praise and congratulations.
“I think he’s underrated,” said Robbie Ray, the newly minted American League Cy Young winner.
Said free-agent infielder Marcus Semien: “He’s so underrated.”
And from just-retired San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey: “He’s probably a little underrated.”
Sensing a theme?
» READ MORE: Phillies’ Bryce Harper wins his second NL MVP
OK, press pause. We’re talking about Bryce Harper, right? The same Bryce Harper who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16? The one who got drafted first overall at 17, made his major-league debut at 19, won an MVP at 22, signed the largest free-agent contract by total value in the history of American sports at 26, scored his own sneaker line as part of a 10-year endorsement deal with Under Armour, and was branded as — wait for it — the most overrated player in baseball by 62% of roughly 250 players polled by The Athletic in 2019?
If people sold Harper short in the half-dozen years between MVP awards, what must they think of Matt Damon during a six-year gap since his last Oscar nomination?
“I don’t know if I know how to explain it, but I would agree with that,” Phillies general manager Sam Fuld said of the underrated narrative. “I wish I had more insight as to why that has existed other than he was really well-known early in his career. Maybe you take that level of talent for granted sometimes, where you just become ho-hum about the game’s greatest. I think to some extent that’s happened with Bryce.”
Let there no longer be a doubt, then, about Harper’s standing among the game’s elite. Since the Baseball Writers Association of America began voting for the award in 1931, he’s the 28th player to win multiple MVPs, the 15th to win two through an age-28 season, and the fifth to win an MVP with more than one franchise, joining Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez.
But Harper’s second MVP — won with 17 first-place votes to six for Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals and two for Fernando Tatís Jr. of the San Diego Padres — validates his first. Nobody knows that better than Harper, who wept after Mike Schmidt, of all people, broke the news to him on live television and raised a champagne toast to his descendant as the biggest baseball star in Philadelphia.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Harper said, the emotion hitting him with the force of the 97-mph fastball that struck his face on that April night in St. Louis and threatened all of this.
An hour or so later, Harper was more reflective.
“This one just felt a little bit different,” he said. “I think being a little bit older, a little bit more mature, being able to have the family now that I do, it just feels a little bit different in that way being able to enjoy this with them.”
In 2015, it was unanimous. Harper batted .330 and led the league in home runs (42) and the majors in on-base percentage (.460), slugging (.649) and wins above replacement (9.7) for the Nationals. His 1.109 on-base-plus-slugging was the highest mark for a 22-year-old or younger in 74 years, since Ted Williams in 1941.
Billed by agent Scott Boras and others as a “generational” talent, Harper was precocious, probably a little brash, and impossibly living up to the hype.
Since then, Soto posted a 1.185 OPS in his age-21 season; Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had a 1.002 OPS this year in his age-22 season; Tatis and Ronald Acuña Jr. have put up video-arcade numbers in their early 20s. They are the fresh-faced phenoms of baseball’s next generation.
Harper? Now a husband and father to two kids with whom he eats dinner at their South Jersey home after every game, he’s like the erstwhile boy-band lead singer who still packs the house but brings on fewer swoons.
If that makes him underrated, well, Harper’s been called worse.
“I’m OK with that,” he said. “Each year you try to get as good as possible, no matter if you’re the highest-paid player in the game or the best player in the game, or if you’re not paid that much or not rated that high. Everybody’s mission should be the same.”
Some may consider Harper’s 2021 season a revival. He batted .309, hit 35 homers, drew 100 walks, and led the majors in doubles (42), slugging (.615), and OPS (1.044), the closest he’s come to 2015. His numbers after the All-Star break — .338/.476/.713, 20 homers — were silly. He shrugged off nagging injuries — and the psychological residue of that fastball to the face — and started the last 72 games in a row.
There’s no such thing as a one-man team, but the Phillies were close. Harper’s OPS in the second half was 1.188; his teammates combined for a .647 OPS.
But while Harper’s twin MVP seasons tower over the rest of his career, he wasn’t exactly ordinary in the intervening years. From 2016 to 2020, he posted a 133 OPS+, meaning he outproduced the league average by 33%. He ranked ninth in on-base percentage (.389), 11th in homers (135), and 24th in slugging (.510).
“I think Bryce is one of those players who could hit 50 home runs and drive in 150 and it wouldn’t be enough,” manager Joe Girardi. “When you’re so publicized as such a young player, the expectations are enormous, and sometimes it’s hard to really, truly get the recognition of how great a player you are.”
It seemed impossible for Harper to play to the value of his $330 million contract. But through three seasons with the Phillies, he has been worth every cent of owner John Middleton’s “stupid” money — and 12.8 wins above replacement based on FanGraphs’ calculations, third among all NL players in that time.
“These three years that we’ve had him have been just incredibly impactful, as good a three-year run as he’s had and really as good a three-year run as just about anybody in the game,” Fuld said. “What he did this year, hopefully he’s properly valued.”
There wasn’t a more valuable player in the league for the second time in seven years, proving Harper is neither underrated nor overrated. He’s quite simply one of the best players in the game, a label that suits him perfectly.