Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening — whichever is applicable to you. By all accounts Gregg Jefferies had a fine MLB career. He was a two-time All-Star and finished his career with a .289 AVG spanning 14 years and 6 teams. Jefferies made his debut in 1987, appearing in 6 games as a 19 year-old rookie. He got another cup of coffee as a 20-year-old in 1988 appearing in 29 games. By 1989, Jefferies’ name had been etched into my brain, having read several articles about him.
Any doubt about Jefferies’ potential dominance was squashed with the release of the 1989 Topps set. Among that 1989 set, there was Gregg Jefferies in all his fielding PFP glory with the never-miss FUTURE STAR header. Honestly I couldn’t tell you what Gregg Jefferies prospect status was nationally. For me he had become the best thing baseball would have to offer.
The creation of this endless information stream dubbed the internet has changed the prospect landscape. For us baseball folk, the exposure to Minor League Baseball and the MiLB draft has opened our eyes to players at a much younger age. With this exposure the prospect label is applied not only more often, but at a much earlier stage than in Gregg Jefferies’ era. No longer do we rely on Topps to inform us of the best young players baseball has to offer.
Merriam-Webster defines hype as an extravagant or intensive publicity or promotion. With the overexposure of players at such an early stage, hype has worked its way into the fantasy landscape now more than ever. The hype of the next big thing has brought many owners to overbid in FAAB, to jump the gun on draft day, or to swap that boring but productive veteran for the shiny new model that just hit the showroom.
While Gregg Jefferies may have been the uber-prospect in my own little universe, there is no question that Bryce Harper has been the most highly touted prospect of the last 25 years. As a 16 year-old sophomore Bryce Harper graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title of “Baseball’s Chosen One”, quite a one-up from Future Star — from that point forward the prospect label had been applied.
As the “Chosen One” Bryce Harper remains the subject receiving perhaps the most scrutiny in all of baseball. That same scrutiny applies to fantasy as well. Coming into 2012, fantasy owners knew Harper’s promotion was only a matter of time. Naturally, most overdrafted him, including me. Harper appeared in 139 games, hit 22 home runs with 18 stolen bases, all while batting .270 to win ROY honors. Despite the solid season (again, he was 19 years-old!) most owners failed to get their money’s worth.
In 2013 Harper had 20 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 118 games while hitting .274. Once again owners who invested a Top 30 pick for him (which was somebody in every league in the universe) were disappointed. 2014 was the year I went all-in, picking 3rd overall in a non-keeper league I chose Harper. While perceived better options were available, I knew 2014 would be the year and he wouldn’t come back to me in Round 2. Yes, I bought the hype. And, yes, the draft room laughs were warranted. Harper played in only 100 Games that season, and the production was more of the ho-hum variety.
Finally 2015 brought you the production that Harper supporters had told you about. Those who had burnt a 2nd or 3rd round pick year after year for mid-level production had finally been rewarded with a top-tier level season. Finally the narrative on Harper had changed: the only question about Harper this season was do you pick him over Trout at One-One?
In retrospect Trout has proven to be the right answer. Trout has been his typical MVP vote-garnering self, while Harper has more closely resembled the pre-2015 version. While Harper has once again failed to meet the hype, too many are overstating the disappointment that 2016 has become. Harper is currently on pace for a 29 HR, 21 SB season with 86 runs and 83 RBIs; there’s maybe a handful of players who will meet those thresholds this season. All of those failures that people speak of regarding Harper for 2016 stem from his .233 AVG and his failure to match his 2015’s numbers.
From a pure growth standpoint the majority of data would suggest Harper has taken positive steps this season. In regards to plate discipline Harper has maintained his walk rate from last season while lowering his K%; Harper is one of three qualified hitters with a BB/K over 1.00. His 1.05 rate this season is 10 points better than last years 0.95. He’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, and swinging at a lower percentage of pitches overall. His contact% has improved by over 6% this season, while his SwStr% has been lowered by over 2.5% from last year.
Each of these aforementioned statistics is in the midst of three consecutive years of improvement. Given the positive growth in plate discipline I find it difficult to sign off on the fact that Harper is a .233 hitter. I realize BABIP is no longer the IT indicator, but a .237 mark compared to a .316 career really sticks out. Doubters will be quick to point out the 22% Soft hit rate, and rightly so. I personally am not a big investor in Contact types when projecting future results. I feel the difference between Hard and Soft contact can be tenths or hundredths of a second out in front or behind on a pitch, or millimeters of difference up or down the barrel of the bat. Therefore, the statistic will see greater variances from week to week, month to month, and year to year. So I’ll acknowledge the 22% Soft contact rate is feeding into the BABIP to some degree, but to point out Harper’s struggles without acknowledging the .237 mark YTD is a mistake.
In regards to the 2015 numbers, could we have simply failed in projecting those numbers moving forward? The following is a list of players you can project with certainty to his 40 home runs with, 118 runs and 99 RBIs while batting .330:
Are players capable of duplicating such a season? Why yes, but to pencil it in with any certainty is a foolish exercise. Anyone who’d suggest otherwise has never been handed a First Round bust. As good as Harper’s 2015 was, given the influx of power into the player pool this season it‘s not hard to imagine Harper carrying the same value as last season if the .237 AVG was closer to his career mark of .280. So despite what some would leave you to believe, Bryce Harper’s 2016 has hardly been one for the dumpster.
The hype surrounding Harper has created a divide in not only real baseball fandom, but in fantasy as well. For years half of leagues everywhere rushed to overdraft him, while the rest laughed mockingly each time his name was selected. 2015 proved to be the reference card for those supporters, while 2016’s struggles have been overstated by each and every Harper hater around.
One of my favorite research tools is Baseball References player similarity scores. The Top 10 comps for Bryce Harper through Age 22 are: Frank Robinson, Tony Conigliaro, Mickey Mantle, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey, Jr., Orlando Cepeda, Andruw Jones, and Cesar Cedeno. 9 of the 10 players are or will be Hall Of Famers based on their present career arc. Only Cesar Cedeno failed to build on such a promising young start.
Very seldom is one’s career defined at the age of 22. Those who doubt Bryce Harper’s long term outlook will look at Cesar Cedeno as a cautionary tale. Those who believe in Harper will refer to the list of all-time greats.
I don’t know if Harper will ever have another season like 2015, and I don’t know if Harper will have proven to be the “Chosen One”, but in my years I’ve come to know a Future Star when I see one.
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