It’s been an up and down (mostly down) season for Bryce Harper coming off his NL MVP-worthy 2015 campaign in the nation’s capital.
As ESPN’s Busty Olney noted this week, Harper’s WAR drop-off from last season’s 9.9 bWAR to 1.6 bWAR ended up being the, “... largest WAR drop-off of any player ever in his reigning MVP season.”
Fangraphs’ WAR was kinder to Harper, who fell from 9.5 fWAR in 2015 to 3.4 fWAR in 2016.
Washington’s 23-year-old slugger went from a .330/.460/.649 line, 38 doubles and 42 HRs in 153 games and 654 plate appearances last season to a .243/.373/.441 line, 24 doubles and 24 HRs in 147 games and 627 PAs this year.
After a strong start in April, in which he put up a .286/.406/.714 line with six doubles and nine home runs in 23 games and 96 PAs, Harper had a .235/.367/.392 line, 18 doubles and 15 home runs in 124 games and 531 PAs over the rest of the season, with Olney noting that his .176 AVG in July was the worst average for a month in his career.
It got worse the more Olney dug in:
Harper crushed fastballs in 2015, with a 1.189 OPS against them, the best in the majors. His .853 OPS against fastballs in 2016 ranked 85th of 146 qualified hitters.
The same can be said for pitches on the outer half. Harper had a 1.175 OPS on those pitches in 2015, also the best in the majors. His .804 OPS on those pitches in 2016 ranked 46th.
And it's the same story in the upper half of the zone. He had a 1.208 OPS on those pitches in 2015, compared to .823 in 2016.
Harper addressed his “struggles” when he spoke to reporters before the start of the Nationals’ NLDS matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I think there's been some ups and downs, for sure,” Harper said, as quoted by CSN Mid-Altantic’s Chase Hughes, “but as a team and as an organization, I think it's been great, for me to have a down year and for us to do what we did.”
"I'll take 24 homers and 86 RBI for a down year. I'll take that any day of the week. I'm just excited to get going and get to playing in the postseason. Hopefully I can keep stealing bags and playing good defense, hopefully mix a few homers in there and just have a good series."
Nationals’ skipper Dusty Baker was asked if the way Harper carried himself or his body language betrayed how he was doing at any particular time this season.
“Well, that's everybody,” Baker said. “When you're playing good, your head's up high. I don't see anybody hanging their head when things are going good in the world.
“But when things are going not as good, I mean, you still hold your head up and still hold your shoulders back, but you know, it's natural to have some head drops every once in a while. You don't have any head drops when you're on top of the world.
“You know, you're actually living in the clouds when you're on top of the world.
“When you're not, baseball has a way of humbling you to bring you back to the ground before it takes you back to the clouds again. And so, I'm sure it's been tough. It's probably the first time in his life that he struggled like this.”
As badly as Harper did struggle at time this season, Baker said he’s remained confident in his own ability.
“He has confidence. The one thing that Bryce is not lacking, is confidence,” Baker joked.
“And sometimes I think people can misconstrue that as arrogance, which it's not. He's a fine young man and I enjoy being around him. He's very respectful.
“But hey, man, when I was 23 years old, access to millions and maybe more, it's tough to stay grounded. Like I've talked to him before, I said, "Hey, man, it's not easy being Bryce Harper." Because, you know, he can't eat or sleep or drink any place or do anything; he doesn't drink, but you can't do anything without always constantly having people around you at such a young age, so it's difficult.
“Sometimes you're a prisoner in your own world, and that's difficult sometimes.”
Harper, for his part, just said that he hoped he could finish strong in the postseason now that he’s put the regular season behind him.
“I love to play under the bright lights,” Harper said. “I love being on primetime. I look forward to those games. I look forward to facing the best in baseball.”
Against Clayton Kershaw, widely acknowledged as one of the best in baseball, Harper, went 1 for 3 with a double and a K in the NLDS opener, which the Nationals lost, 4-3.
“He faces another left-hander this afternoon in the second game of the NLDS after putting up a .226/.326/.438 line against lefties in the regular season... which is, of course, down from the .318/.434/.552 line he put up vs lefties in 2015.