Marcus Hayes: Bryce Harper deserves the National League MVP as he carries the Phillies
As Bryce Harper’s teammates disappear, he becomes more and more visible, and more and more valuable.
As in, the most valuable.
He plays hurt, he plays hard, and he’s playing his best when it matters most, keeping the Phillies relevant in the National League East and wild-card races; they were 2½ games behind the Atlanta Braves on Thursday, three games behind the San Diego Padres and two behind the Cincinnati Reds in the wild-card race. Will their postseason fate matter when the votes are tallied?
He would be an exception, considering only three times in the last 16 seasons did an MVP’s team miss the playoffs. So what? Harper has been nothing if not exceptional, doubly true since right-handed bash brother Rhys Hoskins left the lineup for good.
How exceptional? In the Phillies’ 4-3 loss Wednesday at mighty Milwaukee, Harper had a part in all three runs and reached base all four times. He also made a balletic catch in foul territory at the right-field stands that required the sort of athletic ability for which he is given too little credit. He might be playing the best baseball of his 10-year career, and that includes his MVP season with the Nationals in 2015. In that season he got support from the third-ranked offense in the National League, as measured by runs scored.
These Phillies rank eighth, and that makes his production in 2021 all the more breathtaking.
Harper was a borderline All-Star before the break, with a .282 average, 15 home runs, and, in the metric du jour, an .899 on-base plus slugging percentage. Since the break, he’s hit .329 with 13 homers, the 13th coming in his first at-bat Wednesday, and a league-best 1.148 OPS, which raised his overall OPS to a league-best .999.
The best vs. rest
Harper’s closest rivals aren’t really that close.
Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr., who ranks second in OPS for the entire season, is hitting .256 with nine home runs and a .924 OPS since the break. However, Tatis has 37 homers overall, nine more than Harper, and the Padres would be a wild-card qualifier if the season ended Thursday.
The Nationals’ Juan Soto, the OPS king in the 60-game 2020 Season of COVID and currently No. 3 in the NL, has delivered a strong second half. Overall, he’s batting .306 with 24 homers. His league-high 114 walks fuel his league-high .449 on-base percentage, which, in turn, drives his .963 OPS, all for a team with the league’s ninth-ranked offense that won’t make the playoffs. However, Soto had the NL’s best hitter, Trea Turner, on his squad until the deadline, and Turner continues to feast with the Dodgers’ top-ranked offense. Similarly, the Reds’ Nick Castellanos, at .317 with 27 homers and an .946 OPS, sees Joey Votto and his 29 homers in his lineup every day.
The Braves hold first place in the NL East, and sluggers Austin Riley and Freddie Freeman — the latter of whom won MVP last season — both have more RBIs than Harper, who stands at 68. So do Soto and Tatis.
This usually matters. In this case, it’s irrelevant.
Fellas … ?
The fact that Harper isn’t driving in more runs isn’t because he’s choking. He’s not driving in more runs because he lacks opportunity.
Harper is hitting .301 with runners in scoring position. He’s at .327 with at least one man on base, with 46 RBIs in that situation. He’s seen the bases loaded 10 times this season and he’s gone 4-for-8 with 11 RBIs and just two strikeouts. He’s hitting .438 and driven in 20 runs with a runner on third and less than two outs. He’s been clutch … and, even better, he’s been smart.
In the third inning Wednesday, with the bases loaded and one out, Harper worked an 0-2 count into a seven-pitch, RBI walk to cut the Brewers’ lead to 1. He led off the sixth with another seven-pitch, full-count walk, as a leadoff hitter should do. In the eighth, with a man on first and two out, the Brewers fed him four consecutive balls — well-placed, well-executed, but not to his taste, so he didn’t flinch.
“He’s locked in,” said Phillies manager Joe Girardi. “He’s doing the right thing. He’s not chasing and trying to do too much. We talk about keeping the line moving. We don’t want him to go out of the zone. He’s been real disciplined.”
“He stays within himself in those big moments,” said veteran teammate Kyle Gibson.
Harper can’t help it if, say, J.T. Realmuto isn’t crushing the cookies he’s being served. After Harper’s homer Wednesday, Realmuto struck out on four pitches, the fourth right down the middle. After the bases-loaded walk, Realmuto had to beat out a double-play ball to keep the inning alive.
Realmuto is hitting .209 with two homers and eight RBIs in his last 25 games, which dates back to Aug. 6, the point at which Hoskins’ abdominal tear began to cost him games — and when the Phillies’ season first appeared in real jeopardy.
It seemed like if there was no Hoss, there would be no Harp. That’s exactly what happened the last time Hoskins missed significant time, from Aug. 6-21. Harper hit .209.
Not so this time.
In his 13 games since Hoskins left the lineup for good, Harper is hitting .375 with 5 home runs, 6 doubles, 14 RBIs, 8 walks, and an OPS of 1.269.
He’s not just the straw that stirs the drink. He’s the drink.
Andrew McCutchen, 34, is hitting .221, which, if he finishes at this level, will be the worst batting average of his career by more than 30 points. Jean Segura, the team’s best hitter through mid-August, is hitting .220 in his last 24 games. Shortstop Didi Gregorius has been a nonentity. Still, Harper abides.
Harper is certain to finish among the top three in NL MVP voting if he retains the OPS lead. Since the end of the steroid era — that is, since Barry Bonds stopped delivering performance-enhanced MVP performances after 2004 — only twice has the OPS leader finished outside of the top three.
However, the OPS champ has won the MVP award just six times in those 16 seasons, and just twice in the last nine seasons. To be fair, there generally have been strong arguments against the OPS champ winning it. Such were the cases with both of the Phillies’ most recent MVPs.
Ryan Howard finished second in OPS in 2006, but he also hit 58 homers and won the MVP over Albert Pujols, then the best hitter in baseball. A more nuanced example came the very next year, in Jimmy Rollins’ astonishingly complete 2007: 30 homers, 139 runs, 41 steals, 20 triples, 94 RBIs as a leadoff hitter, with a Gold Glove at shortstop, and iron-man exhibition to boot; he played all 162 games. OPS king Chipper Jones finished sixth.
With few exceptions, the OPS champ and the MVP get great support from productive teams. General managers formulate lineups around MVP candidates to provide them protection.
Harper has had virtually no protection.
Only four times has the OPS champ’s team finished in the bottom half of the National League in runs scored. They were Christian Yelich’s Brewers, who were ninth in 2019; Votto’s Reds, who were eighth in 2017; Pujols’ Cardinals, who were 11th in 2008; and Derrek Lee’s Cubs, who were ninth in 2005.
Only twice in those 16 years has the MVP’s offense finished in the bottom half of the NL’s offenses: McCutchen’s Pirates, who were ninth in 2013, and Pujols’ Cardinals, who were 11th in 2008.
Only three times has the MVP’s team missed the playoffs: Pujols and the Cardinals in 2008; Howard, whose incredible 58 home runs for the Phillies in 2006 set the non-PED NL record; and Giancarlo Stanton, who broke that record in 2017, with 59 homers for the Marlins.
Usually, the OPS leader plays in a very good offense. Harper has overcome this.
Usually, the MVP comes from a playoff team.
Harper should overcome this.