How Good Does Bryce Harper Have to Be?

Keen readers of this blog–both of you–will have noticed one glaring omission among all of my calculations. I have thus far decided not to include a certain 19-year-old catcher-turned-outfielder who last saw limited playing time at AA Harrisburg.

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Jason Reid suggested that Bryce Harper needs to grow up. Given that this is the same Jason Reid whose journalistic insight into the Redskins’ quarterback situation early in the 2011 season gave Washington sports fans–and journalism as a whole– the biggest “Doh!” moment since the night Dewey beat Truman, I was moved to tweet:

The fact that @JReidPost raised doubts about @BHarper3407 making the team leads me to conclude Harper WILL make the #nats opening day team

Well, if Harper does make the Opening Day roster, how good does he have to be to do no harm to a squad already projected for 86 wins?

Let’s assume Harper is an everyday player. There’s no indication so far that he can play center field. The Nats don’t have anyone available with a positive UZR as a center fielder except Werth. So let’s put Harper in right field. Here’s the most dangerous assumption of them all: assume Harper is a totally average defender.

Assuming a Healthy LaRoche

Let’s also assume that Adam LaRoche is healthy and ready to be his usual self at first base. That rounds out the outfield as Morse, Werth, and Harper.

Someone needs to get bumped off the bench. Given that the Nats went out and got DeRosa and Ankiel, that leaves Roger “The Shark” Bernadina the odd man out, so we need to assume that The Shark doesn’t break camp with the Nats.

Assuming everybody’s an every-day type player, we’ll need to cut down DeRosa’s plate appearances, to reflect his status as a real bench player and not half of a platoon. Let’s give him 250 plate appearances. Same with Ankiel.

As constructed and run through my model, this Harper-less squad is good for 83 wins. Were he to join the Nats as the opening-day right fielder, Harper would need to have a wRC of 25–that is “create” 25 runs over 162 games.

What does 25 wRC look like? It looks like an outfielder not much worse than Aaron Rowand of the Giants, who posted 27 wRC in 2011. Rowand batted .233/.274/.347 with 30 extra-base hits (including 4 home runs) in 2011. That’s a pretty low bar to clear.

But What If LaRoche Isn’t on the Team?

The situation becomes more complicated if LaRoche is not healthy. Morse has to move to first base. Werth slides to center, Harper moves into right. Left field sees a Bernadina/DeRosa platoon. Cameron and Ankiel come along for the ride as bench players. What does this look like now? Not too good, I’m afraid: 73 wins.

To do no harm to the team in this situation, Harper would need to be worth 90 wRC. What does a 90 wRC outfielder look like? Consider Matt Holliday of the Cardinals, who posted exactly 90 wRC in 2011. In 2011, Holliday batted .296/.388/.525 with 36 extra-base hits (including 22 home runs). That’s a much taller order.

To put the sheer magnitude of that task into perspective consider this: in 147 plate appearances with AA Harrisburg, Bryce Harper posted a wRC of 18. Normalizing that to the 600 plate appearances one might expect to see out of an every-day player, that would have given Harper an expected wRC of 83.72. Harper would have to hit major-league pitching better than he hit AA pitching to even have a chance of doing no harm to the team in this situation.

Fangraphs’ RotoChamp projection sees Harper with 259 plate appearances in 2012, projecting a wRC of 36 from those plate appearances. Even if we normalize this to 600 plate appearances, that only gets us to 83.39 wRC–not quite good enough for our purposes.

That’s how good Bryce Harper has to be. The real question is: how good is Bryce Harper? Only he can show us if he’s as good as he has to be. For the sake of Nats fans everywhere, I hope he shows us he’s much better than even that.

4 thoughts on “How Good Does Bryce Harper Have to Be?

  1. Long time reader, second time poster here. I may have got completely the wrong end of the stick, so my apologies if so. Surely to “do no harm to the team” if LaRoche goes down, Harper would just need to match numbers of whomever would be playing RF in that situation were Harper still in the minors? My understanding is that the 90 wRC is how good he’d need to be to replace the lost production of LaRoche in addition to the DeRosa/Bernadina drop-off in left field to ensure that the Nats still reach the projected 86 wins? Which is a lot more than doing no harm and LaRoche’s injury would be the main reason we didn’t make 86 wins, not Harper’s production?

    Anyway, fascinating blog, keep it up.

    • It’s an exercise in outfield frustration, because there’s no 1 to 1 correspondence for Harper in the Nats outfield system. Jayson Werth plays there now, but unless there’s a deal for a real center fielder soon (and I have to believe that a real center fielder deal is a high priority for Rizzo–if not by opening day, then at least by the trade deadline of 2012), any scenario that brings Harper to the big league squad will displace Werth and move him to center field.

      Remember, Harp can’t play CF. DeRosa and Bernadina are the best LF options, but must be platooned. Werth is a “do no harm” CF. Ankiel and Cameron don’t play RF, so you have to assume they’re going to be pinch hitters/occasional subs and reduce their plate appearances drastically.

      And all of this assumes LaRoche is somehow gone–either by nagging injury or by a deal. LaRoche himself accounts for 79.59 wRC in my projections, which is not a small number. He’s also around a +1.0 UZR defender at first base, where Morse is close to a -1.0 UZR defender at first base. So that’s an 80-run swing by subtracting LaRoche and moving Morse, with about a 10-run hole from the various outfield lineup changes/platoons.

      The resulting offensive hole is 90 wRC.

      • But isn’t the loss of LaRoche something of a sunk cost in that case? Meaning if Harper is giving you less than 90, it’s not actually him that’s doing the “harm,” because the premise is LaRoche being gone regardless (at least that’s how it seems to be framed), no?

        Which is to say moving LaRoche specifically to fit in Harper is a tall order (all else being equal).

        Great analysis though. Really puts it all in perspective nicely.

  2. Part of the reason I ran the “no-LaRoche” scenario was to answer another question that’s been bugging me: what else do the Nats need in a post-LaRoche era? Up until know, the answer in the grandstands and in the Natmosphere has been Harper, Harper, HARPER–and that’s all.

    From running the numbers, the answer seems pretty obvious: no matter how much swag or how many new fans Bryce Harper might bring the 2012 Nationals, it’s going to take more than Bryce Harper–or more from Bryce Harper–to fill the hole that LaRoche would leave. That leads me to conclude that Rizzo’s trading days are not over. A center fielder with the potential to post at least 45-50 wRC a year looks to be the primary acquisition target, at least to me.

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