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At some point in the last year, Bryce Harper went from perennial first-rounder to being described as an “overvalued” and “losing player.” He was recently voted as “the most overrated player in the game.”

The perception is a predictable outcome for a player who was hailed as baseball’s new phenom when he was still in high school. However, it was Mike Trout who emerged as baseball’s wunderkind. From 2012 to 2014, Harper was regarded as a frustrating underperformer even though he put up a 124 wRC+ from the ages of 20 to 22. Then in 2015, Harper outplayed Trout and won the MVP with a monster season. The performance reignited the Harper vs. Trout debate all over again. When Harper produced only strong but not elite numbers in 2016 and 2017, the story reverted back to questions about his lackluster performance.

The aspersions surrounding Harper are understandable. They are the natural product of when the hype train of a brand-name prospect collides with the sobering reality of humanity: unjustified disappointment. In that ambiguity, dynasty owners are trying to figure out what to do with Harper after another “disappointing” 2018 season.

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By the Numbers

Among players under 30, Harper’s combined work from the last three seasons makes him a top-12 performer. My single-season rankings have him at 84th, 43rd, and 27th in standard 5x5 categories in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. I think the simple reality is that Harper is only regarded as disappointing because of the direct comparisons to Mike Trout and because Harper hasn’t had another stretch as dominant as 2015.

In OBP leagues, Harper is comfortably the seventh best player during these last three years. The best part here is that Harper’s 2015 career year is not included in that three-year valuation. I’m not suggesting fantasy owners should count on a return to that 2015 level of performance. However, we know Harper can be the best player in baseball for an entire year, and his most recent work solidifies his position as a top-20 player for the next few years.

The new narrative might need to be that Bryce Harper is a consistently excellent player who may not win leagues, but is unlikely to lose a league either. Like all players, his performance will dip outside of that top-20 range, but when the work is taken as a whole, there will be only a handful of players who offer better production. Remember that Mike Trout was the 29th best player in 2017. Mookie Betts was 26th.

For next season, Steamer projects Harper as a 4.9 WAR player with a 147 wRC+ and a .389 wOBA. Those numbers make him the 12th best player in terms of WAR, the second best in wRC+ and third best in wOBA. The WAR projection would be better, except that Harper’s defense is projected as one of the worst in that elite tier of players. For context, Steamer projects Mookie Betts to have the fifth best wRC+ with a 143 and the fourth best wOBA with a .388.

The advanced stats are also rosy. In 2018, Harper had a .386 xwOBA, good for 12th among players with 450 plate appearances. That number was right in line with his three-year average .384 xwOBA from 2015 to 2017.

The final piece in all of this is Harper’s age. Harper will be 26 years old for the entirety of the 2019 season. Based on Eno Sarris’ work with aging curves, Harper either just finished the sweet-spot in his career-arc, or he is about to enter it. He should manage to stay within 10% of his career peak for another five years. Trying to project beyond that point is basically futile.

Additionally, Harper’s particular skill set of power and strong plate discipline should age well. His speed and steals will decline, but those haven’t been a major part of his fantasy value except for 2016.

 

Harper and His Peers

If Harper is available for anything less than a top-five player, dynasty owners should be targeting him.
Here are the players I value higher than Bryce Harper in a dynasty league:

  1. Mike Trout
  2. Mookie Betts
  3. Francisco Lindor
  4. Ronald Acuna
  5. Juan Soto

Soto and Acuna find themselves on this list only because they are only twenty years old. That specific age indicates an elite level of talent, and owners will be able to hold those players for nearly a decade before major decline sets in. If they were even 23 years old but with the MLB same track record, they’d fall to at least the next list. Yes, I wrote earlier that trying to project beyond five years was futile. In this case, I’m betting on the potential that Acuna and Soto could be about as productive for twice as long as Harper. In dynasty, my valuation tilts slightly towards that level of longevity over the track record of someone like Harper.

Here are the players I value as about equal to Harper depending on league context and team needs:

  1. Nolan Arenado
  2. Alex Bregman
  3. Manny Machado
  4. Jose Ramirez
  5. Christian Yelich
  6. Kris Bryant

At worst, I’ve got Bryce Harper as the 12th-most valuable player in dynasty. League settings always vary, but it’s hard to imagine too many leagues where he is much worse than that. However, if end-of-season rankings and recent mock drafts are any indications, Harper’s perception is lower than that, even in a redraft format.

It’s particularly difficult to find value with elite players, but Harper seems poised to offer just that. RotoBaller is doing a dynasty mock draft in the coming weeks, and I’d say there’s a strong chance I’ll be taking Bryce Harper with my first-round pick.

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