Player Preview: Bryce Harper
Thank God Bryce Harper had his big year last season, because if he had another good, but misunderstood year he would've become as insufferable to write about as Stephen Strasburg. Ask anyone who writes about the Nationals in any sort of capacity and they'll tell you how draining it is to write about Strasburg. Everything becomes a referendum on the proper way to appreciate baseball and it's all very tiring.
But now we, dear reader, do not have to care about that! Because this is the Bryce Harper post and 2015 proved that the correct AP Style for Bryce Harper is BRYCE MOTHEREFFING HARPER. Yes, Harper had one of the best seasons in the last decade, putting up a MLB-leading 9.5 fWAR, 197 wRC+, 42 home runs and a mind bending .330/.460/.649 slash line.
In the last 20 years, there have only been five player seasons ending in a higher wRC+, 2001-04 Barry Bonds in all of his alleged steroid glory and 1998 Mark McGwire when he was blasting the home run record and saving baseball (also allegedly on steroids). In the last ten years only three player seasons have had a higher fWAR total, 2012-13 Mike Trout and 2007 Alex Rodriguez. Simply put, this was one of the best seasons ever put together in the post-steroid era. If Harper were to retire tomorrow it could not be said that he didn't live up to the hype.
The question now before us is where does he go from here, which is a much more complicated question than we often assume in baseball. Because we simple humans love putting structure, order and patterns to everything we often believe that every baseball career follows the typical parabolic arc, building slowly from an OK rookie season to a peak around 27-32, then a slow descent due to old age back to rookie levels before retirement. It follows that a player who does well at 23, will always do better at 24 on so on until about 28-29 when he starts to gradually do the opposite.
So if that were to be true we would assume that Harper, he who led the Majors in everything only aged 22 will only improve for the next six years until he is putting up numbers that would embarrass even the aforementioned 2001-04 Barry Bonds. But of course, life is not so simple. Like the also aforementioned Mike Trout, it is not guaranteed that a player's career will follow the arc, in fact almost every player's career doesn't.
Let us consider the examples of Trout and fellow 21st century baseball luminaries Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. In his first full season Trout posted a fWAR of 10.3 wins then followed that with seasons of 10.5, 8.0 and 9.0 wins. In A-Rod's first full season he produced a 9.2 fWAR, followed by 4.3, 7.9, 4.7 and 9.5 win seasons. Finally, Pujols started with fWARs of 7.2, 5.4 and 9.5 before six straight seasons of almost exactly 8.0 wins. It's not that Trout, Rodriguez or Pujols didn't keep working hard to improve each day, only that it was difficult to really get much better than they already were.
There's a natural limit to one's abilities to baseball and like all of the aforementioned Harper seems to have pushed right up against it in his marvelous 2015. Which is not to say he couldn't improve on it, there are players who have had better seasons. However, the only players to have consistently pushed beyond the bounds of what we believe humans are capable of are the aforementioned Bonds when he was allegedly on steroids and Babe Ruth. As an aside, how freaking cool would it be if Harper really were to join them in the coming seasons?
Many have taken this limit to mean that Harper must therefore take a step backwards in 2016, but I'm not so sure that's true either. Plenty of players, like the aforementioned Trout, Ruth, Bonds, Pujols and lesser stars, have been able to sustain incredible production over a number of years, even if they could not necessarily improve it. With the plate discipline, prodigious power and speed Harper displayed in 2015, it seems rather foolish to think that he won't put up similar numbers to 2015 again in 2016. And I wouldn't give up hope just yet that he couldn't be the rare fellow who joins the likes of Ruth and Bonds. Boy, wouldn't that be something special.