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July 15, 2019

Paul Hagen: Has Bryce Harper been a disappointment so far for Phillies?

The more Mark Leiter talked, the more agitated he became. The Phillies' right-hander had just made his first start after the 1997 All-Star break against the Marlins at Pro Player Stadium and it hadn’t gone well.

He gave up seven runs in 3 2/3 innings. His earned run average ballooned to 6.32. The Phillies were buried in last place. The South Jersey native had long dreamed of pitching for the team he grew up rooting for, and this wasn’t even close to how he imagined it would be.

His eyes were red-rimmed. He fired a small dumbbell into his locker. That ended the postgame interview.

What really lit his fuse, though, was that a midseason review of the team that had appeared a few days earlier in the Inquirer included a small photo of him with a one-word cutline underneath: Disappointing. How could he already be considered a disappointment, he asked with evident anguish, when he was only half a season into a two-year free agent contract?

Which brings us to Bryce Harper. You know, the guy who set off a gusher of enthusiasm in these parts when he was signed as a free agent during spring training and is only half a season into a 13-year deal.

Breaking news: There are some who’ve been disappointed in him.

Andy MacPhail isn’t one. The Phillies president spoke in the home dugout for about 15 minutes before Friday night’s series opener against the Nationals and toward the end of the session he was asked to assess Harper’s performance.

“I’m surprised, frankly, at the level of concern,” he said, eyebrow slightly arched. “First of all, he had a tough first half last year (and then came on strong). He’s a productive player. His defense has been fine in right field by and large. And I’m hoping he does what he did last year. Despite the .214 average (at the break in 2018) he had a productive OPS (.833) and then he went off from there. I’m hoping something (like that) happens here.

“I’m happy he’s a Phillie, that’s for sure. I think it’s a good fit.”

So let’s analyze the three major components of that statement.

1. Harper got off to a slow start last season, so he could do the same this year

Well, yeah, it could happen. Or not. The reality is that there’s little in the 26-year-old’s track record to suggest that he always gets better as the season progresses. Not to get all math class here, but while his career his batting average has improved slightly after the break (.273 to .281) his on base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS have all actually dipped.

Even in 2015, when he famously struggled early and then went on to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award, the three-homer outburst that marked his turning point occurred on May 6. That’s a full two months before the All-Star Game.

Let’s also take a deeper dive into what happened last year. Yes, he was .300/.972 for the remainder of the schedule. But here’s another stat that has to be considered.

Before the break, his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BAbip) was .226. After it was .378. Which suggests that, just maybe, a crucial factor in his surge was luck. That earlier in the season he was hitting balls at people and that later those same balls found a hole.

For what it’s worth, his BAbip as MacPhail spoke was .321.

And with the usual caveats about three games being an unreliable sample size, he’s had two soft singles in 11 at bats since play resumed last Friday.

2. Harper has been a productive player for the Phillies

That’s a tough one. He hasn’t been awful. He’s contributed. But has he been a disappointment? Depends on whether you choose to see the Gatorade cooler as half full or half empty.

With 16 first-half homers, he’s well-positioned to reach 30 bombs, a milestone he’s only reached only twice in his career... but he was tied for 57th in MLB in dingers at the break. His .253 batting average and .839 OPS were all right... but coming into this season those numbers were .279 and .900 for his career. He didn’t make the All-Star team for the first time since 2014. Amazingly, his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) ranked sixth among Phillies hitters.

Honestly, though, this wouldn’t be nearly the issue it’s become if the Phillies hadn’t guaranteed him $330 million. Fairly or not, the money inevitably becomes the prism through which everything he does is viewed. It raised expectations, probably to unrealistic levels.

Still, he really needs to do better moving forward.

3. The Phillies are happy to have Harper

They should be. Getting him was a jolt of adrenaline to everyone from the fan sitting in the last row of Section 301 to Rhys Hoskins. It underlined ownership’s commitment to spend big to put a winner on the field. And there’s still plenty of opportunity for him for him to start putting up better numbers.

It’s also worth noting that he’s started all but two games in right field. Last year the Phillies used nine different players in that spot. Primarily Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr but also Odubel Herrera, Jose Bautista, Roman Quinn, Dylan Cozens, Scott Kingery, Jesmuel Valentin and Trevor Plouffe.

And he’s avoided becoming a lightning rod by never making excuses and generally playing hard, two checklist items that are important anywhere and paramount in Philadelphia.

Leiter, by the way, misread the situation 20 years ago. The intent of the description was simply to say he’d been a disappointment for those three months, which was undeniably true.

Here’s the funny part, though. In a way, in the end, he might have been right. He came back in as the Phillies closer in 1998 and had a pretty decent year, leading the team in saves and allowing fewer hits than innings pitched.