To many Nationals fans, the idea of letting their franchise cornerstone leave via a trade or free agency is a shocking one. After all, he was drafted first overall by the club in 2010 at age 17, made his professional debut two seasons later and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. In Bryce Harper’s rookie season, the Nationals had their first winning record in Washington, and proceeded to win their division in three of the next five seasons. Harper made four All Star teams, and, in 2015, had a historic year in which he was the unanimous National League MVP. So why should Washington D.C. be looking at a future without their star talent? There are several compelling reasons. After the 2018 season, Bryce Harper will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. He is reportedly seeking a contract that will pay him at least $400 million over the life of the deal. Never mind the fact that an agreement like that would financially hamstring a ballclub for the better part of a decade, impeding the team’s ability to sign other top talent and add needed depth. The real issue is that through five MLB seasons, Harper has not consistently proven himself to be worthy of a deal that large. Further, the Nationals may have a player on their roster who is just as valuable as Harper and scheduled to earn a fraction of what he is seeking over the next five seasons.
On December 7, 2016, the Washington Nationals traded three top pitching prospects to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton, a player with whom some casual fans are likely unfamiliar. Eaton, who also made his professional debut during the 2012 season, has quietly been producing at Harper-like levels throughout his career, especially over the previous three seasons. Adam Eaton is also signed to one of the most team friendly contracts in professional sports, set to earn a total of $38.4 million over the next five years, the latter two of which are team options. On the surface, Bryce Harper looks to be a much stronger offensive player. In his career, he has slashed .279/.382/.501 with 121 HR, 334 RBI, and 412 runs scored, while Eaton has batted .284/.357/.414 with 34 HR, 177 RBI, and 324 runs scored over the same time span. Harper’s counting statistics are higher than Eaton’s for two main reasons. The first is that Bryce Harper has played in 136 more games than Eaton, logging an additional 457 plate appearances. Secondly, Harper is simply a better power hitter. Harper’s career ISO value is .222, which is computed by subtracting hits from total bases and dividing by at bats. A higher number indicates greater power, and Eaton’s career ISO is .130. Dig deeper, however, and you will find that Eaton and Harper are much more comparable players than you would think. Sean Smith from baseballprojections.com developed a series of metrics to compare a ballplayer against league average production in areas such as total hitting, avoiding double plays, base running, and fielding.
|5 year career (162 game average)|
|5 year career (162 game average)|
Harper is known for walking a lot: 232 times in the last two seasons, including 35 intentional walks during that time. Eaton has only walked 195 times in his entire career, with four intentional walks. This helps to account for Harper’s significantly higher on base percentage. Still, once on base, Harper poses a substantially lower threat than he does in the batter’s box. Even after stealing 21 bases this season, he is not considered to be a good baserunner. He was caught stealing 10 times, which puts him among the top 10 in baserunners thrown out, and only Cesar Hernandez and George Springer were caught stealing more times with fewer attempts. Eaton stole 14 bases in 19 attempts this season. More importantly, Eaton scored 32% of the time when reaching base. Harper was at 29%. In 2015, Eaton scored 36% of the time, while Harper remained at 29%. This can partly be explained because Eaton primarily bats leadoff, while Harper mainly hits third. However, reaching base in front of the White Sox Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, Melky Cabrera, and Todd Frazier isn’t necessarily more likely to yield a run than in front of the Nationals Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon, and Wilson Ramos. In fact, Eaton is rated as five total runs above the average baserunner in his career (an advanced statistic known as Rbaser, which is calculated using stolen bases and steal percentages, in addition to relative percentages of success advancing from first base to third base on a single, scoring on ground balls, advancing on fly balls, making an unforced out, etc.), with all five coming in the previous three seasons. Harper is valued at three runs above average to date, with a net of zero in the past three years. This means that especially of late, even as Harper has been accumulating a massive number of walks, he is no better than the average baserunner in creating runs for his team. Eaton is the better baserunner, and no level of on base percentage is significant if it does not yield runs. Over the past three seasons, Eaton has averaged just over 88 runs per year, which is in line with other elite leadoff hitters including Charlie Blackmon (95 runs, 6 Rbaser), Matt Carpenter (94 runs, -4 Rbaser), Jose Altuve (93 runs, 7 Rbaser), and Dexter Fowler (82 runs, 6 Rbaser). Harper has scored 81 runs per season on average, below middle of the order hitters such as Anthony Rizzo (92), Robison Cano (89), Miguel Cabrera (86), and Adam Jones (83), and powerful outfield bats like Mookie Betts (12 Rbaser), Mike Trout (7 Rbaser), Adam Jones (5 Rbaser), and Giancarlo Stanton (3 Rbaser). Thus, while Harper certainly puts fear into opposing pitchers, he adds no value to his team on the bases. Eaton should help the Nationals score more runs from the top of the order, while Harper needs to improve his consistency after reaching base.
In other areas, it becomes trickier to compare Eaton and Harper simply because they bat in different lineup spots. By hitting leadoff, Eaton has more at bats with no runners on base. Over the past three seasons, Eaton has come to bat with 257 opportunities to hit into a double play (runner on first base with fewer than two outs), and only grounded in 15 of them (5.8%). Harper has been faced with 366 opportunities and hit into 32 double plays (8.7%). Harper has killed possible scoring chances at a much higher rate than Eaton has. Thus, Eaton was valued at seven runs better than the average hitter at avoiding double plays over the past three seasons (an advanced statistic called Rdp), while Harper measured one run worse than average in the same time frame. Both Harper and his 2016 teammate Danny Espinosa, a lower in the order hitter, came up to bat 130 times with a runner on first base and less than two outs in 2016. Harper grounded into 11 double plays while Espinosa hit into just four (Espinosa’s three year Rdp is five runs above average).
While there is no denying that Harper can transform a game with a swing of his bat, his advanced batting numbers have been wildly inconsistent. Rbat, an advanced statistic that tries to measure the number of runs that a hitter is worth above an average player, is premised around weighted values of walks, hit by pitches, errors, and hits divided by total plate appearances (where greater extra base hits are worth more and reaching base without hitting the ball is worth less). In Bryce Harper’s 2015 MVP season, he achieved an Rbat of 70, a number so great that Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez, and Albert Pujols never reached it in their best seasons. As for his 2014 and 2016 seasons? An Rbat of six and eight, respectively. Eaton’s last three Rbat values were 13, 18, and 17, thus having a better offensive season (according to Rbat) than Harper in two of the previous three years. This can be surprising to those who view Harper as one of the game’s elite offensive talents, but it appears skewed because he likely had one legendary season sandwiched between two subpar ones. Harper has already had some injury concerns that have cost him 33 more games than Eaton over the previous three seasons, which does not pair well with his sometimes reckless style of play. Adam Eaton, both with his bat and with his body, has been a remarkable source of offensive consistency for the Chicago White Sox, while the same is not as true for Bryce Harper.
Defensively, Harper and Eaton do share a positional overlap, which will likely result in Eaton taking over center field duties for the Nationals while Harper remains in right field. Since the 2014 season, Harper has had 755 total chances in the outfielder, with nearly all of them coming in the corner outfield positions. He made put outs on 719 of those chances, while being credited with 13 errors and 23 assists for a fielding percentage of .983. In the same time span, Eaton played the more defensively demanding center field position about twice as often as he played in the corner outfield spots, and totaled 1,121 chances with 1,072 putouts, 35 assists, and 14 errors. He yielded a fielding percentage of .988, making only 1 more error than Harper in 366 more chances. Harper is rated as six runs better than the average fielder during this time span (from an advanced statistic called Rfield which is based on fielding percentages, runners thrown out, runners held on base, hitting the cutoff man, and playing hops off the wall). In two of the previous three seasons, Harper had a negative Rfield, indicating he was worse than the average fielder. Eaton meanwhile has a three-year total Rfield of 18, including a score of 20 in the 2016 season where he was named a Gold Glove finalist (eventually losing to Mookie Betts). While Harper may have a better arm as evidenced by his assist numbers, Eaton appears to have more range and a better overall defensive game, which is important if he is to be a long-term center fielder.
|*A higher value indicates greater success|
When examining the players wholly, it can be helpful to look at their WAR value which attempts to quantify how many total wins the player adds to their team over a replacement level talent. In Harper’s MVP season, he had a WAR of 9.9, meaning Harper singlehandedly added about 10 wins to the Washington Nationals. Based on WAR, Harper was tied for the 57th greatest overall season of all time, surpassed in the previous 10 years only by Mike Trout’s 2012 and 2016 campaigns. Yet over the previous three seasons, Harper has had a total WAR of just 12.5, adding only one win in 2014 and 1.6 wins in 2016. Baseball Reference writes that MLB starters generally yield a WAR of more than two, indicating that in those two seasons, Harper was hardly producing at the level of even a fringe starter. Adam Eaton has produced a WAR of 5.2, 3.9, and 6.2 in his last three seasons, respectively, thus outperforming Harper in two of them. At the very least, Eaton has been a high end starting outfielder, and has arguably played at an All Star level. In 2016, Eaton was unsurprisingly 19th in American League MVP voting. With teams traditionally willing to pay just under $8 million per win added, Eaton’s true financial value over those three seasons was approximately $120 million. He earned just over $4 million, and is expected to historically outperform his contract through its expiration after the 2021 season.
In Harper’s 2012 rookie season, he achieved a WAR of 5.1, which led to a well-deserved All Star nod and a few MVP votes. The following year he added 3.7 wins, proving him to be a solid starter and nearing All Star production, which he was eventually named. Still, Harper had three consecutive years of declining WAR prior to his historic season, after which he plummeted back to subpar levels. This is hardly the mark of a consistently elite player, and while he will be just 24 years old for the 2017 season, he has played at below starter levels in two of his five professional seasons. That is not to say that Harper won’t rebound again and string together several more MVP caliber seasons. Luckily for him, he has two more years to prove himself before he hits free agency. What is becoming clear is that any possible extension the Nationals float to Harper in that time will certainly be rejected. Bryce Harper seems destined to test the open market at the very least, and his salary desires may be met by another team. The Washington Nationals likely won’t be Harper’s highest bidder, and there is very little reason for them to be. The kind of deal that Harper is looking for will inhibit a team from adding necessary depth around him, and to date he has not produced like a player who can singlehandedly bring a championship to his team. Further, a good portion of Harper’s talent is replaceable by a player already on the Nationals who will make a small fraction of what Harper is seeking. If Washington, who has almost $30 million coming off their books after this season, wants to put their money to the best possible use, it would be finding back of the bullpen pitching depth and a solid group of contributors on the right side of the infield and in the corner outfield spots. The salary that Bryce Harper wants could be used to sure up a variety of positions on this team, while Eaton assumes his role. Therefore, it seems like Harper’s time on the Nationals will end after the 2018 season.
The problem facing the team now is what to do with Bryce Harper. They can either hold on to him until his arbitration rights expire in the hopes that the Nationals can win right now, or they can trade him for crucial pieces to add to their core for the future. Harper’s window coincides with the windows of Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez, and continues one year past the expiration of Jayson Werth’s contract. After Harper’s arbitration period ends, the Nationals still have Adam Eaton, two elite pitchers in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg on multiyear deals, a past-his-prime Ryan Zimmerman, a year of arbitration left on Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark, multiple years of arbitration on Joe Ross and Trea Turner, and the anticipated arrival of top prospect Victor Robles. The Nationals situation hardly screams ‘win now’, as they have quite a bright future beyond Bryce Harper. I like the Nationals as a playoff team in 2017 and 2018, but I do not necessarily see an easy path to a championship. Trading away Harper certainly puts a big dent into the Nationals’ immediate chances, but it may help bolster the team for a deeper run in the early 2020s. The team certainly finds itself in a big bind, but I think the arrival of Adam Eaton should give Washington some creative flexibility in making a move.
McDonough School of Business, Class of 2017