The Pontifications of Lord Zola: Is Bryce Harper a First Rounder?
Lord Zola analyzes Bryce Harper and arrives at a surprising conclusion
You can’t win a draft in the first couple of rounds, you can only lose it.
Play it safe early, take your chances later.
If you like a player, take him.
If I didn’t take him then he wasn’t getting back to me.
Blah, blah, blah.
At the end of the day it’s not why, but whom. Any strategy can succeed or fail if you pick the right or wrong players.
Some strategies have a better chance to succeed, but there is no doubt more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.
When it comes to constructing a team via snake draft, my philosophy is to play it safe early and take chances later. There is actually a mathematical, hence logical (in my mind) explanation, but that’s a topic for another day. Today, as the title suggests, I want to discuss a player I will not be drafting if I adhere to my usual modus operandi.
In the National Fantasy Baseball Championship’s Draft Champions contest, Bryce Harper’s ADP is 15 meaning he’s a late first, early second round player. I suspect most consider drafting him at the spot more of a gamble on his potential than a safe play. I know I do. Let’s see if that’s warranted or if I’m missing something.
The best means to judge if Harper is worthy of that draft spot is to determine what should be expected from someone at that point of the draft and compare it to Harper’s projection. Let’s average the projections for hitters ranked 12th through 18th to estimate the numbers for the 15th ranked player. I don’t account for positions except for catcher and since there are no receivers in this range, no adjustments are necessary. The reason for a range is to account for players contributing varying distributions of stats.
I’m going to be honest; it’s a whole lot closer than I expected. Let’s go through it by category.
We’ve all done this one time or another. All Harper needs is 14 more hits to reach .295. That’s basically a hit every other week, nothing that a little luck can’t handle. A seeing-eye grounder here, a blooper there and voila! It sounds good but do you want to base your first round selection on 14 lucky hits? I’d rather see what it might take to earn those additional 14 knocks.
The easiest way to improve batting average is to whiff less. Harper improved his strikeout rate last season fanning a reasonable but not great 19 percent so there’s room for more growth.
Harper’s line drive and ground ball rate support a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in the .320 range which is higher than its actual .308 so maybe at least some of those 14 hits aren’t such a pipe dream after all.
One gust of wind and Harper has ample home runs. I think it’s safe to say he has the power worthy of this draft spot. That said, it comes with a caveat. It’s still early in his career, but to this point Harper’s tendency is to hit line drives and groundballs as he sports a low 33 percent fly ball rate. With so few lofted balls, Harper needs to maintain a healthy HR/FB of which he is more than capable. Last season he sported a mark of 18 percent which ranked 22nd among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. It’s more that his power upside is capped unless he puts more balls in the air. Gusts of wind aside, can Harper hit 30 HR? Sure, but he needs to either change his approach or improve his already lofty HR/FB.
Harper routinely hits in the upper half of the order which lends itself to scoring runs. He has good speed which also helps. Nationals Park plays neutral for run scoring which neither helps nor hurts. Washington’s lineup is about middle-of-the-pack. It’s a small sample, but since his career-to-date pace is worthy, we’ll put a checkmark in the runs column.
But here’s where it gets dicey as Harper’s career RBI pace falls significantly short of what’s necessary, requiring 25 more teammates to cross the plate on his behalf. The tricky part is we are dealing with a small sample and RBI is a team-dependent stat which can be skewed with a little bad luck. In his favor is Harper is slated to hit third as he did most of last season.
Harper’s average with runners in scoring position was a paltry .230. This actually bodes well for more RBI since this was most likely an anomaly and not an indictment of his ability to come through in the clutch.
On the other hand, with Denard Span and his pedestrian on base percentage setting the table, Harper’s opportunities may lag behind other top players. Not to mention, the player most suited to hit second for the Nationals could be Harper, which would deprive him of RBI chances. Though, this would be more than made up for in additional runs and a few more plate appearances.
There’s a very good chance that Harper’s RBI pace improves, but not to the level commensurate with the composite 15th pick. But that’s OK, he doesn’t have to meet each average. One category can exceed the target allowing another to fall short.
With the same small sample caveat, to this point in his career, Harper has run enough to garner ample bags. There’s a new skipper in town in Matt Williams so it’s somewhat a leap of faith that he’ll see sufficient green lights especially since his success rate of 74 percent is right at the cusp of what is necessary to yield stealing bases worthwhile from a runs-probability angle. Still, it seems like a safe assumption that Harper will net the desired steals.
To summarize the categorical outlook, homers, steals and runs appear safe while RBI and batting average are possible but need some stars to align properly to make it happen. However, before rendering the final verdict, there’s one more piece of evidence that needs to be introduced and tried.
Granted, he’s only had one real chance after being called up in late April of 2012 but we don’t know for sure Harper can stay healthy enough to amass the at bats needed for the required level of production. There are many that contend Harper’s all-out style will result in both nagging and lingering injuries. To his credit, Harper has already admitted that continuing to run into walls is a clown thing to do, but we don’t know if he’s capable of turning down the throttle in other instances as well.
As can be seen in the above table, my playing time projection is exactly in line with what is averaged. My expectation is about 145 games which builds in a bit of a buffer but still represents a target Harper has yet to achieve. If you’re taking Harper in that range, you’re in essence saying you don’t expect that he’ll visit the disabled list at all. Let’s be conservative and say he misses 13 games on a 15-day DL stint. That only leaves four other off-days all season. That’s not a huge margin of error. Projecting 145 games assumes missing a few games in a row here and there with some off days worked in.
To be completely forthright, I’m more skeptical Harper plays 140-something games than I am he hits for a higher average or increases his RBI. Health is a skill and so far Harper has shown a penchant for bumps and bruises. On the other hand, there is always the chance Harper learns self-control and plays 150-something games which would buoy his production, perhaps into top-ten range.
And the verdict is
As alluded to earlier, this is a lot closer than I perceived. The necessary production may not be the most plausible outcome, but it’s certainly not pie-in-the-sky either. There’s both downside risk and upside reward tied to playing. From a skills perspective, there are three questions:
- Can Harper further improve his contact?
- Will his BABIP regress up to what is supported by his hit distribution?
- Can Harper hit more fly balls without any appreciable detriment to his other skills?
You know what? One can argue that yes is the best answer to all three. That adds additional upside.
My final conclusion is different than I anticipated. Keeping in mind the A in ADP is average, an ADP of 15 implies some take Harper in the first, some in the second. I honestly anticipated contending both are too rich for my risk-averse, conservative blood.
Upon closer inspection, I’m not going to be the guy that jumps Harper into the first round. I’m just too obstinate and prefer to sacrifice potential for what I deem to be more reliable and durable. But come my next pick, if he has slid into the second, Harper’s definitely in play whereas before this exercise, he would not have even been considered.