Reminder: It wasn't just weirdos in the bowels of the Internet who thought Bryce Harper was overrated. It wasn't just the gurgling of hot-take artists on the radio, or the talking heads on TV. It was the players. Harper's peers. Before 2014, ESPN asked 143 players who the most overrated player in baseball was. The winner:
Bryce Harper, 24%
Before this season, 117 players were asked the same question.
Bryce Harper, 41%
Their top three picks to win the 2015 World Series were three teams that didn't even make the postseason, too. It wasn't a banner year for the ESPN Player Poll.
Turns out that Harper isn't overrated, which is what we've been trying to tell you for years. When players are good-not-great at the same age as a college sophomore, that actually hints that they'll eventually be great. The people claiming Harper was overrated were basically writing, "Don't follow baseball history lol" on the ESPN poll and then eating the crayons.
So we're in the future, and Bryce Harper is probably the best hitter in baseball. He's the 2015 MVP, a unanimous choice. He had the highest adjusted OPS since Barry Bonds in 2004. His stats wouldn't look out of place in the steroid-fueled '90s and early '00s, but it's not just the stats. It's the disciplined approach and unreal bat speed, the feeling that he's going to yank the ball 450 feet every time the pitcher makes a mistake.
And he did it at the age of a college senior. At some point, we'll have to stop pointing out how young Harper is. That time is not now.
The question at hand, though, is this: Can Bryce Harper get even better? It's a terrifying thought, but imagine a 22-year-old player winning the 2016 Rookie of the Year and you thinking, "Well, that's as good as he'll ever get." It wouldn't happen. So we should at least look into the possibility that Harper will improve. And we'll do it using baseball history.
Who were the players who a) finished with nine wins above replacement or more, and b) weren't 23 yet? There were seven of them, and while WAR is a blunt object that factors in baserunning and defense, it's still the best way to compare seasons across eras. Here are the players who were about as good as Harper at a similar age. Let's see if they had even better seasons in store.
Harper-like season: 9.7 WAR, age 22, 1909
Did he get better? He did. He was worth 10.5 wins the following season, stealing 81 bases. The tricky thing here is that a lot of that value was tied to his defense, which ... look, it's hard enough to measure defense with current players, much less players from a century ago. We don't even know how many times he was caught stealing, how can we assume his defensive metrics resemble reality?
Still, Collins is an inner-circle Hall of Famer. He was great at 22, just like Harper. He probably got better. At the very least, he stayed just as valuable, which is still scary.
Harper-like season: 9.8 WAR, age 22, 1909
Did he get better? He did. He eventually hit .420 with a 1.088 OPS in a year when the league hit .273. He had two seasons after his '09 campaign with 10+ wins and one after that with 11+ wins.
Harper-like season: 9.9 WAR, age 21, 1917
Did he get better? He did. Hornsby hit over .400 in three out of four seasons from 1922-1925, with a career high of 42 homers in 1922 and 12.1 WAR in 1924. His dominant age-21 season was just the beginning of a brilliant career.
Harper-like season: 10.6 WAR, age 22, 1941
Did he get better? He did. And he did it the year he came back from World War II, notching a 10.9 WAR in 1946.
That's going by WAR, though, which WAR isn't exact enough to worry about the difference between 10.6 and 10.9, especially when it includes imprecise defensive stats, so note that 1941 was when Williams hit .406 with a .553 on-base percentage and led the American League in home runs. If you go by the raw, famous stats, Williams never got better than he was at Harper's age.
He just had to settle for being one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball.
Harper-like season: 9.4 WAR, age 22, 1943
Did he get better? He did. Three years later, he hit .376/.450/.702, with career highs in batting average, home runs, RBI, and runs scored. Musial was worth 11.1 wins that year.
Are you noticing a theme with these players yet? You should probably be looking at these names and thinking, "Hrmmm, wait a sec ..."
Harper-like season: 9.4 WAR, age 20, 1996
Did he get better? He did. Not by raw OPS, but his career-best WAR ended up a full win higher, 10.4, in 2000. Also, he was roided to the gills, so feel free to discount him if you want. But considering he probably was back in '96, too, he still fits with the theme of I-can't-believe-he-actually-got-better that we're going for.
I don't think we appreciate enough just how awesome Rodriguez was in his 20s.
Harper-like season: 10.8 WAR, age 20, 2012
Did he get better? No! Not yet. Look at this loser, who peaked at 20 and then just completely tailed off. What a raging disappointment.
Of course, I guess he still has some career left, considering he was 23 last year. So it's possible that he could get better, too. If you're going to be a lawyer about it.
Seriously, though, look at those names. Look at the Hall of Famers and historically significant players who were the only ones to do what Harper did at a similar age. Again, that's ...
- Eddie Collins
- Ty Cobb
- Rogers Hornsby
- Ted Williams
- Stan Musial
- Alex Rodriguez
- Mike Trout
Even more impressive might be the names that aren't on there. There's no Barry Bonds, no Albert Pujols, no Lou Gehrig, no Hank Aaron, and no Mickey Mantle. There were just seven players who had a season worth as much WAR as Harper was before turning 23, and they all turned into baseball legends, except for the one guy who still has a decade or two in front of him.
And other than Trout, they all got better at some point, at least according to WAR. If you're skeptical about WAR, that's fine, but you can note that all of them at least maintained something close to that level of production, if not better.
You probably didn't need another way to appreciate Harper's magical season, but in case you were running low, there you go. He's in elite company. The players in that elite company got even better as they aged.
It's possible that Bryce Harper is just getting started, everyone. Buy some canned goods and water-purification tablets, and I'll meet you at the underground bunker.