What a Bryce Harper Breakout does for Nats

In the 2/12/15 edition of Good Morning Natstown I linked to a story that claimed it was going to be about what a Bryce Harper breakout would mean for the Nationals. Instead it was about what several players who were injured or under performed could provide the Nationals if they were healthy or returned to career norms.

Bryce Harper was listed among them and he is a needle mover and click baiter, but I really wanted to read the column the headline promised, and the only way that is going to happen is if I make it myself.

First it has to be decided what exactly a Bryce Harper breakout season looks like. This is a player that was worth 4.4 fWAR at the age of 19 in 2012, and had a 137 wRC+ one season later at the age of 20. What most people think of with Bryce Harper isn't the productive player they've seen at times, but instead they think of a young phenom that has struggled to stay healthy. The real breakout number for Bryce Harper may have nothing to do with batting .300 with 30 home runs and more to do with simply playing 150 games. When Bryce Harper has been injury free over the past two seasons he's been a monster. It is just those times have been few and far between.

Before getting into my thoughts on what a healthy Bryce Harper looks like let's actually put a slash line to a breakout season for Harper. Despite the fact that Harper has been good already that isn't enough for people because he comes with such big expectations. That means a breakout season for Bryce Harper puts him firmly in the MVP discussion and since he's an outfielder those offensive numbers are going to have to be pretty big. The top three offensive outfielders in the NL in 2014 were Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, and Yasiel Puig. Of them only McCutchen had a .300/.400/.500 batting line but Stanton and Puig weren't far off with Puig having the "worst" offensive numbers of the three with a .296/.382/.480 batting line. A Harper breakout season is going to be right around that .300/.400/.500 batting line.

Now that I've talked my way around putting an exact figure on it let's look at a couple of times Bryce Harper was on the field and not dealing with some type of aliment. There is Bryce Harper's entire rookie season where he hit .270/.340/.477 at the age of 19, but that was at the age of 19 and Bryce Harper has gotten bigger (not as big as a house yet) and stronger since then. One of the best times to look at then is right before all the injury issues started. In April of 2013 Bryce Harper started the season blazing hot hitting .344/.430/.720. Harper then busted up his ribs on the fence in Atlanta attempting to rob a Tim Hudson home run and then he took his famous head first run into the Dodgers Stadium right field wall. That derailed his fine start to the 2013 season and we are all left to imagine what exactly he could have done if he'd been healthy for that whole season.

Fast forward to our most recent sample of a healthy Bryce Harper, the 2014 NLDS, and in those four games Harper put up an amazing batting line of .294/.368/.882. If you notice one thing with the times Harper has been perfectly healthy and not 19 it is that he had amazing power, but alas the 2014 NLDS can be dismissed out of hand because it is too small a sample size. It's four games and while they were four very good games for Bryce Harper they were still only four games, but all is not lost from the 2014 season. You see Harper started the season recovering from knee surgery and just as he started to get over that he injured his thumb. He then struggled to such a degree that morning sports talk show yahoos in DC asked Matt Williams if he should be sent to the minors and on that day he hit a walk-off home run against the Mets and hit .298/.353/.494 until the end of the season.

At that pace over a full season Harper would be a .298 hitter with 35 home runs. Close to that vaunted level of the player so many casual Nats fans covet. The OBP is a little lacking, but it provides a taste of what a healthy Bryce Harper could do. Throw in one hot month like at the beginning of 2013 and those offensive numbers would look even better. A healthy Bryce Harper isn't too far off that MVP level, but what does that mean for the 2015 Nationals? That is after all the question the article's headline said it was going to answer and for that I'm not sure we have an answer other than to say an MVP candidate is going to be worth somewhere between five and seven wins or more and Bryce Harper was worth 1.3 fWAR in 2014. So if Bryce Harper plays 150 games and puts up a batting line close to .300/.400/.500 then he's going to provide at least 3.5 extra wins which is a huge jump from just one player.

Projections for Bryce Harper have him hitting right around what he did for the last couple months of 2014 and being worth 4.5 fWAR, but that is with him playing in only 138 games and playing below average defense. If Bryce Harper can either play in more games or play better defense then he can improve that fWAR number but even a jump from 1.3 to 4.5 would be big for the Nationals. That is roughly the equivalent of Jose Reyes, Salvador Perez, or Alexei Ramirez and the Nats gave up nothing in money or players to acquire it. If Bryce Harper simply plays as expected he's going to be huge for the Nationals, but if he breaks out and plays above projections and competes for the MVP he's the nail in the coffin of every other NL contender.


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