Let’s begin where most people first learned of Bryce Harper.
With a magazine cover.
You know the one. Harper, all of 16 years old and nearly busting out of his No. 34 crimson Las Vegas High Wildcats jersey, gazing over the horizon as he follows through on a majestic left-handed swing. But look beyond the posed photo, beyond even the headline — “BASEBALL’S CHOSEN ONE” — stamped on the June 8, 2009, cover of Sports Illustrated. Now read the subhead: “Bryce Harper is the most exciting prodigy since LeBron.”
Think about that. Let it wash over you.
Twelve years later, the haters will scoff at that declaration. They will claim it didn’t age well. They may even paraphrase Harper and call it a “clown prediction.” LeBron James is, by any measure, among the three best players in NBA history. Harper, despite his six All-Star Game appearances and unanimous National League MVP selection in 2015, isn’t even one of the three best hitters in baseball today.
But Harper has done as much to spark MLB’s era of the phenom as LeBron did for the NBA youth movement. Really.
Consider this: Before Harper and Mike Trout came along — and both arrived in the majors for good on April 28, 2012, a red-letter day for baseball — only four players since 1965 had hit 20 home runs in a season before the age of 21. Harper and Trout did it at 19 and 20, respectively, and in the eight intervening seasons, four others followed: Carlos Correa, Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto (twice), and Fernando Tatís Jr.
Harper also transcends baseball unlike any active player. The Phillies’ star right fielder has corporate partnerships with nearly a dozen companies, including Gatorade, Under Armour, and T-Mobile. He’s the one player in the sport who comes anywhere close to LeBron’s Q-Rating.
But here is where the LeBron-Harper — or even LeBron-Trout — comparison really falls apart. Since 2012, James has won four championships and played in eight NBA Finals. Neither Harper nor Trout has won even a single playoff series.
Whereas LeBron has the rings, Harper has felt only postseason stings.
“LeBron’s an incredible athlete. He takes over games,” said Harper, who is entering Year 3 of his 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies. “Same thing as [Tom] Brady. Everything usually hits on the right cylinders for those guys. There’s no panic in their play or anything that they do. You look up to guys like that because you understand how they work and their mentality, and you hope to be there one day, winning World Series and championships.
“Baseball, anything can happen. Sometimes, you know, the best team doesn’t always win.”
Certainly the best players don’t. It’s the nature of the sport.
A great scorer can dominate a basketball game, just as an elite quarterback can dictate the results all the way to a Super Bowl. But Harper reached base more often than only four of the 142 players who qualified for the batting title last season and the Phillies still missed the playoffs for a ninth consecutive year because he isn’t responsible for pitching the ninth inning.
Harper has 36.8 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, during his career, eighth-most since the beginning of the 2012 season. He went to the playoffs in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017 — all with the Washington Nationals — and lost in the division series, three times in the decisive game and twice at home. Only Trout (75.0) has more WAR without winning a playoff series.
But Harper and Trout aren’t alone in the pantheon of superstars who haven’t popped champagne. Of the 30 players with the most WAR since the playoffs were expanded in 1969, neither Bobby Grich (69.2) nor Rod Carew (67.7) won a postseason series. Adrian Beltre (84.1), Jeff Bagwell (80.2), Ken Griffey Jr. (77.7), Frank Thomas (72.1), Rafael Palmeiro (70.0), Jim Thome (69.1), Larry Walker (68.7), and Carlton Fisk (68.3) didn’t win a World Series.
So, yes, Harper needs help, which explains why he began wondering in early December about the Phillies’ direction.
When Harper agreed two years ago to the largest contract, by overall value, ever signed by a free agent — a mark that stands three years later — managing partner John Middleton vowed to surround him with enough talent to compete for championships. But 10 weeks after last season ended, Middleton hadn’t so much as hired a replacement for demoted general manager Matt Klentak, to say nothing of initiating negotiations to re-sign catcher J.T. Realmuto.
“I wanted to put my trust and faith in the team to keep their word,” Harper said. “Of course, when you get halfway through the offseason and there’s not really much going on you kind of sit there worrying about what our identity as a team is going to be.”
Did he consider reaching out to Middleton? They did, after all, develop a personal relationship when Middleton took an active role in recruiting Harper in 2019.
“I don’t think we were to that point yet,” Harper said. “I put so much trust into John and what he’s doing, and I think he was kind of a little bit busy trying to figure out his front office and what he wanted to do.”
Middleton eventually hired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and promoted Sam Fuld to general manager. The Phillies initially signaled that they might cut payroll after citing $145 million in losses during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But they brought back Realmuto and Didi Gregorius, rebuilt the bullpen, and added starting pitching depth. For luxury-tax purposes, the payroll will likely exceed $200 million for a second year in a row.
But is it enough for Harper to end the Phillies’ playoff drought and chase away his own postseason demons? Is it enough for him to win that elusive playoff series?
“That’s everybody’s ultimate goal,” he said. “I think every guy says that when they get to spring training. But you have to have the right bullpen, you have to have the right starting pitching, everything has to be hitting on the right cylinder to get where you need to be. I think hopefully we can do that this year and get my name off that list.”