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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Let’s not give Bryce Harper the NL MVP just yet


Bryce Harper
Photo: Getty Images

At the All-Star break, the Philadelphia Phillies were a .500 team and weren’t being taken very seriously as threats to take the NL East crown from the Mets. Despite throwing everything and the kitchen sink at All-Stars Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto in 2019, the Phillies have not reached the playoffs since. In fact, they haven’t posted a winning record in the two seasons since. However, 2021 seems to be bringing the city of brotherly love some baseball fortune.

Since the All-Star break, the Phillies have gone 15-9, and they haven’t lost since the calendar flipped to August. In that time, the Phillies have swept the New York Mets and taken sole possession of first place in the National League East for the first time since mid-April. Was it their deadline acquisitions of Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy? Those have played a role, sure. That was when this current 8-game win streak started after all. The pair has two wins and two saves since heading to Citizens Bank Park. Yet, they’ve only appeared in three of those games.

A bigger reason the Phillies have seen such an uptick in production has been Bryce Harper’s surge to the top of NL MVP odds boards. Since the start of July, Bryce Harper has raised his slugging percentage from .507 to .570. He’s recorded 23 extra-base hits, and he’s batted in more runs (22) than times he’s struck out (21). However, even during this incredible month, Harper still hasn’t performed anywhere near the level of his MVP season of 2015 (or 2017) for that matter. This current 32-game hot stretch that Harper is on doesn’t even compare to those two meteoric seasons, and Harper didn’t even win the award in 2017. He didn’t even finish top-10 in MVP voting. Does that mean it’s impossible for Harper to win the award this year? Not at all. Maybe the level of competition is lower. If Jacob deGrom can miss as many games as he has and still have a chance to take home the hardware…then the competition must not be that great.

Currently, Bryce Harper has the second-best odds to win the NL MVP, behind only “El Niño” Fernando Tatis. While Tatis should absolutely be at the top of everyone’s list, he’s also missed over 25 of his team’s games. Max Muncy is by no means a superstar in MLB, yet he’s got top-5 odds as well. It feels like if Harper was going to win the award, now would be the time, when there’s so much debate about who the best player in the National League is that anybody who experiences a marginal hot streak shoots up the leaderboards. I mean in just the last week, both Trea Turner and Bryce Harper jumped from odds of worse than +2000 (20-to-1) to top-5. The National League is so wide open in comparison to the American League it’s not even close.

So, I guess the most important question is “Can Bryce Harper keep this hot streak up?” And surprisingly, that might not be out of the question. The streak Harper is currently on has only been matched by streaks he’s had in ‘15 and ‘17. While Harper had those streaks going throughout the entire season, Harper is experiencing this almost three-quarters of the way through. Harper has experienced hot streaks in other seasons as well, but none have lasted as long as this one, giving way to the idea that maybe he’s going through a similar power surge that he saw in his two best seasons.

Is he the MVP front-runner? No! And he shouldn’t be! His first half was disappointing and one month of great play shouldn’t throw away his three months of just “meh” play. For goodness sake, Harper doesn’t even lead his team in WAR. He doesn’t even lead all position players on his team in WAR. And while I know runs batted in can be a heavily luck-based stat, Harper is fifth on his team in that department — a team that ranks 11th in on-base percentage.

It’s not his fault, and I wish RBIs wouldn’t play a factor in Harper’s MVP case, but it will. If you don’t think it will — Hank Sauer, Jeff Burroughs, Juan González, George Bell, etc. (you could make a case for 2012 Miguel Cabrera too) — that’s just a few of the players who’ve won MVP awards almost entirely based on their RBI numbers.

This year, Harper has had just 77 of his 383 plate appearances (20.1 percent) this year with runners in scoring position, and he’s slashing .317/.455/.433 with 22 RBI in those situations. Compare that to someone like Tatis, who’s had 84 such plate appearances despite having only 315 total PAs in 2021 (26.7 percent). That’s a major difference. The Padres have been better at getting on base in front of Tatis than the Phillies have with Harper. With a more well-rounded lineup surrounding him, Tatis has been put into situations to drive in runners much more often, and with opportunities happening that often Tatis has been able to establish a “clutch” narrative around him. Don’t get me wrong, Tatis is a great player in those situations, but Harper has been too. He just doesn’t get those opportunities as often. That’s why Tatis has recorded 24 more RBIs than Harper with runners on despite posting very similar stats. And yes, I know that 24 RBIs in just seven more plate appearances in those situations means there’s more going on than what I’m saying. Tatis has more home runs in those situations, but aside from that discrepancy, the pair’s walk, strikeout, sac fly, batting average, OBP, and BABIP numbers are all so close that the two should be much closer in the RBI department.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been the biggest Bryce Harper fan. In fact, for most of his career, you could have called me a hater. However, I can’t deny the fantastic numbers Harper is currently putting up. That being said, I’d like to see this hot streak go a little longer before I’m ready to give Harper MVP-worthy praise.

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