How valuable was Bryce Harper? These are the stats that drive his MVP case.
Harper's ability "speaks for itself," but his numbers from 2021 tell a compelling story of his value.
Sam Fuld watched each of Bryce Harper’s 35 homers this season, was there for his second half — a major-league best 1.188 OPS — that nearly willed the Phillies into the postseason, and saw him start each of the season’s final 72 games, carrying a slumping lineup as far as he could.
But what impressed the Phillies general manager the most was not any of those home runs or late-inning RBIs. Instead, it was a pair of fly outs in a rather forgetful early-season game.
“He just squared up two balls that in any other condition would have gone 500 feet,” Fuld said last week. “The wind was howling. I just remember dreading that night because those are the kinds of games that so often will lead to slumps because as a hitter you think to yourself, ‘What more can I do?’ The level of frustration could have been sky high, so I was worried that night that this could have been the start of a cold streak.”
» READ MORE: All-Star, MVP ... Hall of Famer? Exploring Bryce Harper's case for Cooperstown
Harper’s two fly outs that night in April against St. Louis were two of the 645 balls hit last season with an exit velocity of at least 108 mph and a launch angle of at least 26 degrees. Just 8.9% of those 645 ended in outs, and Harper hit two of those outs — one traveled 380 feet and the other traveled 400 feet — three innings apart.
“Bryce was pretty locked in at the time and I’m thinking ‘Ugh, man. One, how did those balls not leave the yard? Two, what does this mean for him?’ And it was the opposite. He stayed locked in.”
Harper homered two days later, homered four times in his next seven games, and kept a torrid start going before he was hit in the face by a 97-mph pitch at the end of April.
If Harper wins his second MVP award on Thursday, it will largely be because of his league-leading offensive production. But what Fuld remembers best is how Harper responded to a pair of outs that could have derailed his season.
“It helps to have the career that he’s already put together and knowing that at the end of the year, whatever the back of the baseball card is going to be, it’s going to be pretty good-looking,” Fuld said. “He bounced right back and stayed hot. For whatever reason, that moment sticks out to me.”
That night was the start of an impressive season. And here are five stats that show just how impressive Harper was in 2021.
Harper led the majors in OPS (1.044), registered the third-highest OPS+ (179) by a Phillies player since 1900, became the first Phillie to hit over .300 (.309) in seven years, and hit 30 homers for the third straight time during a 162-game season. But how did Harper perform when the game was on the line? Better than most.
His 1.071 OPS in the seventh inning or later and 1.107 OPS in tie games both led the majors. Harper hit 35 home runs, and 17 of them either tied the game or put the Phillies ahead.
So how impactful was Harper? This advanced metric tries to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs. Harper’s 170 WRC+ (weighted runs created), which led the majors, means his run creation was 70% better than the league average last season. Since 1900, only three Phillies — Mike Schmidt in 1980 and 1981, Dick Allen in 1966 and 1967, and Chuck Klein in 1933 — have had a higher WRC+.
» READ MORE: Bryce Harper, Zack Wheeler, and the Phillies’ flawed superstar formula
“His ability speaks for itself,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “He’s an extraordinary talent and he’s talented in every way of the game. Particularly, he stays within himself and it’s amazing when he stays within himself and doesn’t try to do too much, how far he can hit the ball. He plays hard. He plays hard all the time.
“I hope he puts himself in a spot where he can keep doing it because he’s a guy who can go into the Hall of Fame.”
Harper finished second in the majors in on-base percentage (.429), but he led the majors in weighted on-base average, which is a more accurate measurement of a player’s production as it weighs each result differently instead of tabulating walks and home runs as equal outcomes.
Washington’s Juan Soto, an MVP finalist, led the majors in on-base percentage at .465, but his wOBA was 45 points lower as 83% of his 304 times on base came via a walk, single, or hit by pitch. Just 70% of Harper’s on-base trips came via walk, single, or hit by pitch.
How valuable was Harper to the Phillies this season? No player produced better numbers this season when his team won.
Harper’s .367 batting average in games the Phillies won ranked first in the NL while his .479 on-base percentage and .753 slugging percentage led the majors. The Phillies won just 82 games, but that win count likely would have been much slimmer without Harper’s production. Harper’s 1.232 OPS in wins is the sixth-best in franchise history and trails only Allen (1.295 in 1966) and Ryan Howard (1.237 in 2006) in the last 89 seasons.
Harper struggled mightily in May as teams were not afraid to challenge him with fastballs, a pitch he has had little trouble with in the past. But May was different. Perhaps Harper was still jittery at the plate after being hit in the face in April by a 97-mph fastball. Or maybe his wrist injury — which stemmed from that hit by pitch — was causing him problems. He said in May that it was just a matter of getting his timing down.
» READ MORE: The Phillies need outfield help. It’s time to go shopping again.
Whatever the case, he figured it out. Harper hit .282 with a .521 slugging percentage against fastballs in the season’s first two months (for comparison, Freddy Galvis hit .281 with a .539 against fastballs in the same stretch) before hitting .359 with a major-league best .788 slugging percentage against them from June on. The season started on April 1, but Harper’s MVP campaign began once he started pummeling fastballs again.
“I was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall and see what his daily pregame routine looked like,” said Fuld, who was in uniform on Gabe Kapler’s coaching staff during Harper’s first season in Philly. “It more than exceeded the reputation of him being a committed, dedicated baseball player.
“You heard about his desire to win and his commitment to that. That early exposure to him just reinforced it. It’s impressive. There are pregame reps in there that are gamelike with intensity and focus and he does that every night and I think that’s pretty special. You don’t see that very often.”