Bryce Harper hasn’t played in the All-Star Game since 2018 or the postseason since 2017. The Phillies are 180-182 and have occupied first place after less than one-quarter of those games since they added Harper to the payroll in 2019. And the national spotlight doesn’t tend to shine brightly on .500 teams.
Maybe that explains how one of baseball’s biggest stars of the last decade flew under the radar for so much of an MVP-caliber summer.
“I know a lot of people around the league talk about him being amazingly underrated,” Phillies general manager Sam Fuld said, “and I believe that’s the case.”
Bryce Harper, underrated? Imagine that.
Never mind that Harper, Sports Illustrated cover boy at age 16 and recipient three years ago of the richest free-agent contract at the time, was leading the National League in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.019) through Thursday. Or that he had reached base at a .417 clip, bested only by Washington’s Juan Soto, and slugged .602, less than only San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. Or that, at 28, he’s having his best season since at least 2017 with the Nationals and possibly since his MVP season in 2015.
Until a few weeks ago, the notion that Harper may be the NL MVP once again seemed to catch people off guard, which is a little like being surprised that Leonardo DiCaprio could pull off another Oscar nomination for best actor.
It’s patently absurd. Ten seasons into his major league career — and with 10 years left on his $330 million contract — Harper is squarely in his prime. Since he became a Phillie, his OPS+ (on-base-plus-slugging-plus, which normalizes a players OPS across the league) is 148, meaning he’s 48% better than the average hitter. That’s sixth-best in baseball among players with at least 500 plate appearances, trailing the Angels’ Mike Trout (180), Soto (162), Tatis (162), Tampa Bay’s Nelson Cruz (157), and Houston’s Yordan Álvarez (150).
Harper’s value to the Phillies, especially this season, can’t be overstated. Save for a 15-game stretch in May when he batted .211 with a .318 on-base percentage and slugged .316 after getting hit in the face by a 97 mph fastball that deflected off his left wrist and eventually put him on the injured list for 10 days, Harper has done as much as one player can possibly do for a team. Since he returned to the lineup on June 5, Harper has played in 81 of 84 games -- including 50 in a row through Thursday night -- and batted .319 with 23 homers, and a 1.088 OPS.
“Sometimes he does it quietly with three walks and scores two runs; sometimes he hits two homers that both go 450 feet,” Fuld said. “You tend to see a little of both throughout every week. It’s been incredible. He impacts us as much as anybody on this field.”
But here’s the thing: In baseball, it isn’t as common for the best player on the field to carry his team to victories -- and certainly championships -- as it is in, say, basketball or football. Trout has been as dominant individually as LeBron James and Tom Brady. But while LeBron has been to 10 NBA Finals and won four, and Brady has gone to 10 Super Bowls and won seven, Trout hasn’t even reached the playoffs since 2014 because he can’t play center field and pitch for the Angels. Not even Shohei Ohtani can do that -- at least not simultaneously.
“It’s a team game. It always has been,” Harper said earlier this season. “And if you don’t have pitching, if you don’t have defense, if you don’t have timely hitting, you’re not going to win games. You could have a great stretch of pitching, but you don’t score runs, you’re not going to win those games. It definitely helps when I’m 3-for-4 more than 0-for-4, but it’s definitely a team game.”
But winning does raise a player’s profile. If the Phillies overtake the division-leading Braves or the Padres for the second wild-card spot, Harper could become the seventh player to win an MVP with multiple teams, joining Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson, Barry Bonds, and Álex Rodríguez.
And then there’s the increased visibility of playing on a national stage in October. These last few years with the ordinary Phillies haven’t done much for Harper’s Q-Rating, which, in turn, isn’t great for baseball.
Tatis, Soto, Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr., Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Ohtani, the Angels’ two-way sensation, have emerged as superstars. Tampa Bay rookie Wander Franco is already one of the most exciting players in the game. None, save Ohtani, is older than 23. They are the fresh faces of the sport.
But Harper may still be the most recognizable. He bows to the fans in the right-field bleachers before Phillies home games, has a cleat and a bandana for seemingly every occasion, and gets booed when he steps to the plate in New York, Los Angeles, and everywhere in between. Love him or loathe him, Harper is a showman, and MLB needs to be able to show him off as often as possible.
For as desperate, then, as the Phillies are to have Harper lift them into the playoffs for the first time since 2011, baseball needs him to get back there almost as much, especially because Trout, Ohtani and Soto aren’t October-bound and Acuña is out for the season.
Harper made it in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017, but the Nationals lost in the divisional round each time, often in crushing fashion. In 2012, they gave up four runs in the ninth inning and blew a two-run lead in a Game 5 loss at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. They also lost the deciding game at home in 2016 and 2017 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, respectively.
In thinking back to those series, Harper claims to have never taken for granted the opportunities to play in the postseason. Surely, though, his first three years with the Phillies have given him even greater appreciation for how difficult it can be to get there.
“For sure,” he said. “You talk about Dan Marino, right? Got [to the Super Bowl] one time. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and he was only able to do it once and never got back. Baseball’s a hard game. To be able to get to the playoffs and get deep into the playoffs, things have to go right. Everything has to go right. It’s very hard to get there. And once you get there, you want more and more of it. Just to feel that environment, see the environment, I love those opportunities. I love those moments.”
It has been too long since the Phillies experienced them. MLB could stand to see them -- and Harper, in particular -- back in the spotlight.