Checking In on Bryce Harper, Full-Time Designated Hitter (For Now)

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We discussed this just a few weeks ago: With Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos, Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm, the Phillies have no shortage of defensively challenged players who could be better served as the team’s designated hitter, and luckily for them, those DH is now a fixture in the National League. The team’s plan earlier in the season was to use its two new free-agent sluggers, Castellanos and Schwarber, to fill that role while minimizing their presence in the field, but for nearly two weeks, Bryce’s position has been vacated Harper occupied. The reigning NL MVP was supposed to be the team’s right fielder but an elbow injury has meant he has put his glove down for the time being – and it has coincided with him heating up after a slow start.

Harper started eight of the team’s first nine games in right field, but he hasn’t played the position since April 16. Instead, he has remained in the roster as the team’s DH for 12 straight games. He apparently injured his elbow while throwing to home plate on an April 11 RBI single by the Mets’ Francisco Lindor:

Afterwards, Harper was seen grabbing his elbow:

Although Harper DHed the next day, he played four more games on the field before returning to DH duty. At the time, manager Joe Girardi described his condition as “a little irritation, a little tendonitis” in his throwing arm, which was made worse by throws while playing right field against the Marlins April 14-16. Harper took a break from throwing, underwent an MRI on April 21, and was diagnosed with mild strain in his flexor mass.

The 29-year-old hitter doesn’t mind the injury when swinging his racquet and has been able to stay in the line-up. He started the year on a 4-for-29 funk, with three of those four hits yielding extra bases, including an opening-day RBI double against the A’s and a homer by the Mets’ Edwin Díaz on April 13 after the initial injury . On April 16, he won 3-on-3 with a two-run double against Trevor Rogers, starting a 12-game stretch in which he went .362/.392/.638.

Harper’s overall line of .276/.337/.513 doesn’t look like much, but it’s good for a 142 wRC+ in this impoverished offensive environment and matches his career mark. While some players are struggling to get into DH duty – which may be down to playing with less than full health, as well as the pinch hit penalty to some extent – it hasn’t been a problem for Harper so far . In 121 career PAs in the role (including 50 this year and 41 in 2020), still a small sample, he has scored .308/.397/.538 for a 152 wRC+.

Based on his batted results, which are not far from last year’s despite the limited sample, his batting line should be even better than it is so far this season:

Bryce Harper batter profile

Year BBE EV Barrel% hard hit% avg xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2019 399 91.9 13.5% 45.6% .260 .270 .510 .542 .365 .383
2020 150 92.5 17.3% 50.7% .268 .308 .542 .658 .400 .453
2021 360 92.5 18.1% 49.2% .309 .301 .615 .610 .431 .430
2022 56 92.1 16.1% 53.6% .276 .307 .513 .581 .372 .407

Of course, some of this is related to league-wide conditions. Baseball as a whole bats .366, 63 points below its xSLG (according to According to Tom Tango, the X-stats won’t be recalibrated until the end of the season, so given the less bouncing ball and the league-wide use of humidors, we should expect significant gaps.) So Harper’s 58-point deficit seems normal.

While his batter stats are fairly typical, Harper’s 7.0% walk rate and 25.6% strikeout rate are not. This is a disciplined hitter with a 16.7% walk rate over the last year and a career mark of 15.1%, more than double his current rate. Harper’s current chase rate of 38.5% is eight points above his career mark and nine points above last year’s mark, and likewise his in-zone and overall swing rates are also up about eight points from last year; he swings on 55.6% of pitches overall, which is 9.4 points above his career rate. Given that swing rate tends to stabilize around the 60PA mark, this is notable, and at Harper this fits into a pattern highlighted by Eno Sarris, where a player swinging much more frequently while being less productive might presses. Perhaps Harper is trying to prove to himself and/or his team that he is sane, or perhaps he feels more discomfort or pain checking his swing than persevering. Harper’s strikeout rate and 17.2% swinging strike rate are both about three points above last year’s rates, and if there’s one area where he’s really struggling, it’s that he’s struggling by two strikes 0.156/0.170/0.289 (28 wRC+) until 47 reaches PA; he has a 77 wRC+ for his career in such situations.

It’s worth noting that Harper is seeing a lot fewer fastballs this year — 45.3% versus 53.2% last year according to Statcast, which lumps all fastballs together, and 42.5% versus 47.7% last year , according to pitch info, with four- closer. This comes as the league-wide rate has dropped from 36.3% to 34.5%. Maybe that’s something, but given that Harper hit .336 with a .710 slugging percentage against fastballs last year, maybe it’s just plain old common sense on the part of pitchers.

As the condition of his elbow doesn’t prevent Harper from making his cuts and staying productive (although the form of his production is slightly different), a stay on the injured list doesn’t seem imminent, and the 3 The date Girardi considers the earliest indicated when he could return to right field is not a fixed deadline. Still, his absence from right field comes at a price, as the defensive failings of Castellanos, who started every game there in Harper’s place, are well documented. For his career, he’s got -49 DRS, -39 RAA (Statcast) and -31.6 UZR in 4,271.1 innings in the right, worth about three seasons, which, yikes, even given Harper’s understated work out there last year ( -6 DRS, -6 RAA, 2.0 UZR). For the Phillies, the difference will likely be felt most strongly in terms of runners, who take extra base against Castellanos, whose arm-related component metrics are in the red within DRS and UZR, while Harper’s is in the black, despite the latter throwing when he does outside, this advantage is lost.

As in the case of Mike Trout, Thursday marked a notable 10-year anniversary for Harper: he made his major league debut on April 28, 2012; The date also marked Trout’s return from Triple-A. The two sluggers are inextricably linked through that date and this year’s Rookie of the Year awards, although their paths have since parted ways aside from earning multiple MVP awards. Trout has essentially already secured a spot in the Hall of Fame, having compiled a 77.7 WAR by our measurement and a 77.5 by Baseball Reference, where he ranks fifth in JAWS for midfielders (71.3 ) and third in the seven-year peak (65.1). behind only Willie Mays and Ty Cobb. Harper (40.4/35.7/38.1) takes a more conventional, age-appropriate way to build his case for Cooperstown. He’s only 44th among right fielders in JAWS and is 6.7 WAR below top standard, but again, remember he’s only in his 29-year season. His 40.0 WAR in his 28-year-old season is shared with Giancarlo Stanton in seventh place among right fielders, well ahead of Hall of Famers like Vladimir Guerrero (34.7), Tony Gwynn (33.0), Dave Winfield ( 32.0) and even Roberto Clemente (30.1). These rankings don’t include Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, or Frank Robinson, three of the top 5 in JAWS because they haven’t played half their games in right field (the threshold I used in Stathead).

Harper’s reputation is age appropriate and has significant room for improvement. Within his peak tally, he has four seasons of 4.8 WAR or less, including his 2020 mark of 2.0, so raising that should be doable. For example, if he even ran three 5-WAR seasons and one 4-WAR season between here and 2025, his season at age 32 would have put him up to 59.4/39.8/49.6 (Dec. among right fielders) and would already place ahead of Gary Sheffield (49.3) and Bobby Bonds (49.5), just below Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero (50.3). Spending a lot of time at DH would affect his WAR and slow his pursuit, but there’s little reason to think his current injury will force him into that role permanently.

While we’re staring at a calendar that’s about to roll over to May, the usual caveats about sample size apply. Harper has gotten off to a pretty strong start, wounded wings and all, and nobody seems too concerned that his elbow or occupation of the DH slot pose long-term problems. The same goes for the grand plan as we celebrate its 10th anniversary: ​​it’s moving at an impressive pace, if not extreme, and we’re lucky to be able to see it.

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