Bryce Harper is, simply, a potential once-in-a-generation player; one that could transcend the game in ways only the greats have. Yes, that much we know. But the keyword – the single most important word – in that first sentence is: potential. Because despite what the media would have everyone believe, Harper, in fact, has not become anything more than a great prospect – yet.
At an age where most are just finishing up their senior years in high school, Harper breezed through A-ball and made a semi-successful 37-game stint in Double-A. Yes, the potential is there. So the question shouldn’t be: How good is he? No. The real question to ask is: Just, exactly, how good will he later become?
Harper, at the age of 18, hit .318/.423/.554,with 17 doubles, one triple, 14 homeruns, and 19 stolen bases during his time with the Hagerstown Suns in Single-A. His overall production, according to Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), was 68% above the league average, tied for the best mark in the league among hitters with 300 or more plate appearances.That, however, wasn’t the final stop. No, Washington wisely promoted the wunderkind to Double-A where, not surprisingly, he struggled just a bit. In 147 PAs, Harper managed to hit .256/.329/.395, barely keeping his production north of the league average, by three percent. But, at 18-years-old and with a meager offensive line, he still managed to best the league average, if ever so slightly. Oh, yeah, he was six years younger than the average hitter at that time.
Right now, Bryce Harper is a fantastic prospect, arguably the best in baseball. Again, that much everyone can agree on. But going back to the original question: Just, exactly, how good will he later become?
According to scouts, Harper’s power already grades out as an 80, the highest mark. But what separates him from other sluggers – particularly young ones – is his refined plate discipline. While in A-ball he walked in 14.4% of his plate appearances, nearly six percentage points above the league average and the youngest player he trailed in that department, Brenden Webb, was three years his senior. He was also been able to maintain a solid strikeout rate as well, in either level (20% and 17.7% in Single-A and Double-A, respectively).
And as far as recent age comparisons go, the last 18-year-old player to make at least 100 trips to the plate in Double-A was Fernando Martinez, an injury-riddled former top prospect who the Mets gravely mishandled. And Harper’s production outperformed him by 13 percentage points too.
So what about recent comparisons at Single-A, the level where he spent the majority of his first professional season at?
Since 2006, the first year complete MiLB sortable data is available on fangraphs.com, to 2008, a point that would allow enough time follow a prospect’s progress, there have been 94 teenagers that got 300 or more plate appearances in Single-A. Only one player – Giancarlo Stanton, formerly known as Mike Stanton, who also happened to be 18-years-old at the time – posted an ISO of .230 or greater, and his walk rate, 10.7%, was almost four percentage points lower than Harper’s. And one player – Stanton, again – posted a wRC+ greater than 160; both players had the same total, 168.
And, truthfully, in spite of the somewhat limited data set, Miami’s Giancarlo “Mike” Stanton does seem like a reasonable comparison to Harper. Both players power grades out near an 80. Both players exhibited above-average plate discipline at, coincidentally, the same age. However, where the two diverge is when it comes to strikeout rates and speed, both nods go to Harper in those categories.
Stanton just completed his second year in the big leagues, at the age of 21. He hit .262/.356/.537, numbers that Harper could post at that age in the big leagues, only maybe a year earlier. Give the latter’s speed, a solid, above-average tool, and contact rates, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to best the former’s average by 15 to 20 points either at that age either.
So how good will Harper later become?
Adjusting for age – he doesn’t turn 20 until November – something around a peak season – or peak seasons – of .320/.420/.580 seems reasonable, numbers similar to Mo Vaughn’s 1996 (look it up). Stanton should follow somewhere close behind, lacking in only average. Remember: both players are still at least half of a decade from their peak years. Meaning: there’s plenty of developmental time left.
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