When the Phillies signed Bryce Harper in 2019 for $330 million over 13 years — at the time, the biggest contract in the history of North American sports — there was no question. Harper was not worth that much money. The Phillies were simply overpaying for a self-centered centerpiece who would fill empty seats at Citizens Bank Park.
Harper has pocketed just over $65 million since he took up residence at the Bank, but even beyond the immediate $25 million spike in ticket sales his signing spurred in March 2019 (according to a former Phillies employee), Harper has been worth every dollar, in every conceivable way.
His team hasn’t made the playoffs. He hasn’t seen an All-Star Game after making six All-Star teams in his first seven seasons.
But Harper just won his second National League Most Valuable Player award, which made him the first multiple winner since Albert Pujols took home a second and third in 2008 and 2009. Harper has been building toward this since he won his first, in 2015.
Would Harper be able to reach his typical output if he left the Nationals’ potent lineup and joined the Phillies’ lesser hitters? His average numbers over the last three seasons — projected over 162 games, to allow for the 60-game COVID-19 season of 2020 — are almost universally better than his last three years with Washington.
In fact, among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances since 2019, Harper ranks second in OPS, slugging (.556), home runs (83), doubles (87), and walks (248) and was third in batting average (.281), according to baseball-reference.com.
He was best when it mattered most, and when he had the least help. Rhys Hoskins, who was Harper’s only protection in the lineup, played his last game Aug. 25. In Harper’s 36 games after that, he hit .358 with a 1.234 OPS, 11 homers and 30 RBIs. The only reason the Phillies were relevant until the last week of the season was the guy wearing, and batting, No. 3.
The numbers don’t lie, and neither do your eyes.
He plays the outfield and runs the bases like a man desperate not only to win games, but also to win your approval.
When Harper considered coming to Philadelphia, a former Nationals teammate advised him, “Either go all-in, or don’t go at all.”
Harper’s been all-in from Day 1.
Harper wore bright green Phillie Phanatic cleats in his first home opener.
At last year’s opener he wore a suit with a collage of Phanatic photos as its liner.
His signing was the news of the 2019 offseason and spring training, eclipsing Manny Machado landing in San Diego for 10 years and $300 million. As such, Harper constantly was badgered for one-on-one interviews, and, suddenly worth one-third of a billion dollars, he felt like he had to do all of them. After four weeks the Phillies’ media relations staff cut him off.
“He never says no,” a former PR executive said.
After earning the reputation as an indifferent defender, he now dives in the outfield. Once considered a cautious base runner, he now tries to take extra bases — often, to his team’s detriment, but the hustle is appreciated.
He does all the Philly stuff Philly fans want Phillies to do, and he revels in his successes, pointing at the dugout, egging on the spectators, and respecting their feelings.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid chastised Sixers fans when they got booed at home.
Embiid shushed booing fans in February 2020, then lied about it.
“Stay on that side,” Simmons scolded fans after a playoff loss in 2019.
Harper had barely unpacked when got booed. He finished his first April as a Phillie colder than the Schuylkill in January, and the catcalls cascaded.
In Da Club(house)
As much energy was spent fretting about Harper’s clubhouse persona as his on-field production. Would he be as standoffish in Philadelphia as he’d been in Washington? He spent most of his tenure in D.C. as a flashy young star who sometimes seemed more interested in hairstyles and bat flips than in playing proper baseball.
He was the biggest name on a roster that, when he won the NL MVP at 22, included Ryan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and, of course, former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth, Harper’s big-league big brother.
... he’s the type of player you love to have because he’s ready to play every day, hit anywhere in the lineup we needed him, and pushed everyone around him to be at their best.”
He’d been a brash kid with no responsibility. Could Harper, now 28, become a mentor? A leader? The face of the Phillies?
In his first season he made sure to squire young players to dinners, where, of course, he paid. He became fast friends with rising star Hoskins and lesser-heralded newcomer J.T. Realmuto. Last year he, along with virtually every Phillies fan, actively campaigned for the Phillies to re-sign Realmuto, who, to no one’s surprise, re-upped for five years and $115.5 million.
You might know that he’s taken shortstop prospect Bryson Stott under his wing, and that he FaceTimed 2020 first-round pick Mick Abel, but did you know Harper asked then-general manager Matt Klentak for all of the top draft picks’ phone numbers? It makes sense. He signed a 13-year deal with a no-trade clause; some of these kids one day will be his teammates.
When they are, and if they do their jobs, they will be welcome.
Harper showed up in Philly as devoted to routine and preparation as Chase Utley and Roy Halladay ever were. He isn’t a babysitter, and he’s not a sheriff — Hoskins, if anyone, plays those roles — but Harper doesn’t big-time teammates like Barry Bonds.
Gabe Kapler, his first manager in Philly, understood the qualms that surrounded Harper’s arrival. Kapler won the NL Manager of the Year award Tuesday, but as a player, Kapler was part of some interesting clubhouses with the Rangers and Red Sox. He’d seen it all, and he found Harper to be the complete package.
“Bryce made an immediate impact on and off the field,” Kapler said in a text message Tuesday. “He is a generational talent, and his work ethic, effort level and determination is second to none. As a manager, he’s the type of player you love to have because he’s ready to play every day, hit anywhere in the lineup we needed him, and pushed everyone around him to be at their best. He shares his success with everyone around him, one of the marks of a top-shelf teammate.”
An MVP, in every possible way.