Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Bryce Harper's Free Agency: Legacy and Decision Making in Baseball

Update: Since I wrote my last blog, the Jays management have  "released" Tulo, a move that is consistent with the argument I was making. You can find information here.

In my last blog, I tried to argue that the signing of Bryce Harper -- whomever signs him -- tells us more about baseball than about Harper. Making decisions if one runs a baseball team is not an easy business and no one would contend it is. That is why the people who make those decisions are paid a lot of money, or one of the reasons, and I have very little time for people who complain about how difficult their job is ... if they have a job most of us would do for a lot less! Yes, baseball is hard but ... it is baseball. You get to watch the game, talk about the game, analyze the game ... and get paid for it. I'd take that job.

What we need to bear in mind, however, is that not all baseball decisions are made for the same reasons. Someone will sign Bryce Harper for a lot of money and that is something I would not do. The truth is that most GMs won't either.  A few will enter into negotiations, kick the tires, as it were, and a smaller number will be serious but only a few teams when it comes right down to it will decide that Harper is their man. Most -- the vast majority -- will drop out because of the costs, because of concerns the team might have about him, because their plan for team development lies elsewhere. Much of the speculation this time of the year in baseball journalism is about who will do more than kick the tires.

I tried to argue that there are a lot of reasons why I would not sign him and I want to pick up this line of reasoning in this blog. This does not mean that he is not a good ball player. It just means that he is not the best player in MLB and I think the cost might outweigh the benefits. How so?

Let's start with how good Harper is. He's good. He does more than pass the eyeball test.  He will be 26 next season -- still not in his prime -- and already has an MVP, Rookie of the Year, and 6 all-star selections. I don't mean to make light of those because they are significant accomplishments. I am not looking to explain them away because I don't think they can or should be explained away. Over 7 years in baseball he has a .900 OPS (an overall measure of offensive ability), which is indeed well in the all-star range. So, what is the downside. Let's look at the record:
  1. Like Troy Tulowitzki (the example I used in my previous blog), he has had injury issues. They are no where near as grave as Tulo's but he missed time in 2013, 2014 and 2017.  Injury histories worry me, particularly if one is going to be asked to sign a long-term deal because the issue is not health next year or the year after but a number of years down the road. 
  2. Harper's numbers are good but they are not as good as his reputation might suggest. He has, for instance, topped the mythical 100 RBI line once and that only in his contract year (another thing I worry about is players who put up higher than average numbers in the year before they become free agents. Harper did not really do this except in the RBI category). He's topped the 100 runs scored number twice. He's in the 90s on both RBI and runs scored on other occasions but these numbers are more in the way of very good than spectacular. 
  3. When we drill deeper, we find other issues. For instance, Harper's WAR (wins above replacement, a way of measuring the number of wins an individual player contributes to their team versus a replacement level player, or how much better a player is than their average competition), was great in his MVP year. At 10.0 this meant that by himself Harper contributed 10 extra wins to his team versus what a replacement level player would have contributed. This is spectacular and it won Harper and MVP, as it should have. Before and after he won this award, however, his WAR has been not nearly as good. Injuries played a role in these numbers but his pre-MVP year WAR was 1.1 and his post-MVP WAR numbers were: 1.5, 4.7 (very good), 1.3.  Last year his defensive WAR (a measure of how much he contributed on defense to his team) was -3.4. Two years ago it was 0.0; the year before that -0.9. What this means is that last year Harper contributed a total 1.5 wins to his team (v a replacement level player) but his defense actually cost nearly three-and-one-half wins. His offense was really good but his defense was really bad, making his overall value mediocre.  

These numbers are not horrible, by any stretch ... well, the defensive WAR last year was bad. Neither, however, are they best player in the game type of numbers. Harper was not, for instance, in the top 10 in WAR in the National League last year, nor the year before that. In fact, he has been in the top 10 in the National League in WAR only one time in the last five years (his MVP year).  These numbers, in fact, compare unfavourably to the other players with whom one might compare Harper. Harper's total WAR for his team since his career started is 27.4. This is more than good. But Mike Trout's is 64.3. Trout is older than Harper by a year and a half (give or take) but that does not explain a difference this wide. It is about the same as Christian Yelich (26.4), about the same per year as Freddie Freeman, lower than but in the same ball park as Nolan Arenado. It is not as good as Mookie Betts, and I could go on but my point I think is made. Harper is a good baseball player but he's not an outstanding baseball -- so far at least -- like Trout and he's behind Betts both offensively and defensively.

What this amounts to involves me telling another story: a number of years ago the Nationals (Harper's team until he signs with someone else) signed Jayson Werth to a seven year contract, worth north of 120$ million. It was a huge contract for the time and my bet is that the Nationals knew they were overpaying. Werth was a pretty good player. Not as good as Harper but his record was good. His defensive metrics were, shaky, despite his reputation as a good defensive outfielder but he also did a fair number of things well. In addition to what now seems like an undeserved defensive reputation, he was a good base runner, he hit for power and scored runs (46 doubles, and ... 27 perhaps HR the year before he was signed by the Nats). He had, the year before he was signed, a .921 OPS, higher than Harper's this past year. The difference was that Harper is 26 and Werth was 31. At 31, the career of most baseball players is starting to -- or, going to start to -- decline. Injuries start to occur, and one naturally slows down. 

Werth did not have a horrible career with the Nats. His first year with them (2011) was bad, but his next three seasons were good, with +.800 OPS in all three. His time with the Nats was injury plagued, but that is what one would expect. From 2015-17 his career was in decline and ended in 2017 at the age of 38, You can check out his numbers at baseball-reference.com -- where I get my numbers -- but his career was not bad.  He is not going to be on anyone's Hall of Fame ballot, but it is not a bad career. Indeed, if the Nats had not elected to seriously overpay him at the age of 31, most people would have concluded that his career was really quite good. Many people think it is not because he never could do the job that he was paid a lot of money to do: win. The Nats were perpetual contenders, to be sure, but never got over the hump to win the World Series. 

The lesson is this: if I were going to build a team I'd look at Harper only if a specific number of conditions were met. For instance, my team would need to be good already. Harper would need to be the missing piece. I'd need everyone to understand that in the longer run, we were probably about to overpay. And, we'd need a clear understanding of Harper's weaknesses as well as his strengths. And, I'd need to be sure that the money I was about to spend could not be better spent elsewhere. For instance, I was watching a Winter Meetings update on TSN and there are something like a ba-zillion good bullpen arms. Would I want one or several of those? Would I want to devote money to player development (I am sure most teams would prefer a Vald, Jr. or Bo Bichette)? Would Harper be willing to work on his weaknesses? Would he work on his defense, for instance, so it does not become a serious liability (it is at the point of becoming that if it does not change)?

Harper leaves the Nats (if he leaves the Nats) with a mixed legacy. Like Werth he never succeeded in what fans see as the main goal: winning. We are not, of course, simply talking about a winning season. After all, as Tampa Bay and Oakland have demonstrated, you don't need to pay someone 400$ million to have a winning season. He leaves (if he leaves) as a remarkably talented player but not so far as a generational player. He's not Mike Trout and I don't think he's Mookie Betts either. Statistically, as I said in the previous blog, he has not even been the best player on his own team. I like him and I'd love to have him on my team but his legacy suggests that his price is going to be too high.

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