How Old is Bryce Harper?

February 17, 2019
 
We can answer that questions quickly: Bryce Harper is twenty-six years old. Or twenty-six and a hundred and twenty-five days, if you want to be exact.
 
It is this fact - Harper’s age - that most projections about what his future are based on. Bryce Harper is a very young player who has done a helluva lot as a major league player. He hit the majors as at twenty and posted one of the very best seasons any twenty-year old has ever had. At twenty-two, Harper had one of the best seasons anyone has had, winning a unanimous MVP award. He is sitting on a career wRC+ of 140, and an OPS+ of 139.
 
What can we expect that player to produce, going forward?
 
We can reasonably expect the peak seasons of a Hall-of-Fame career. Starting from the basis of Bryce Harper’s current age, we can project that the team that signs him will enjoy a run of great years from one of the best players in the game.
 
What happens, though, if we turn that question inside out? What if, instead of starting with Harper’s age and drawing an inference about performance, we start with his performance, and extrapolate from that performance how old he is? What if we asked how old Harper is by what he’s done? What would that show us?
 
It would show us something…different.
 
Bryce Harper was a very good player when he reached the majors in 2012. He was very good in 2013. After a step back in 2014, he was historically great in 2015, winning the NL MVP and posting the best hitting campaign the senior circuit had seen since Barry Bonds.
 
And then Harper was kind of lousy in 2016. A part of that lousiness was luck (Harper’s BABIP went from .369 to .264), and part of it was injuries, but he wasn’t a great player in 2016.
 
He was pretty good in 2017, at least as a hitter. He was slightly less productive in 2018, though he put up a decent line by traditional metrics (34 homers, 103 runs scored and 100 RBI).
 
That’s an annual breakdown. Looked at holistically, Harper has obviously changed as a player.
 
Bryce Harper used to be a good baserunner, but he’s more neutral these days: he seems to have lost something of his young speed. As a defensive player, Harper looked good in his rookie year, but the general consensus has had him fluctuating between ‘slight negative corner OF’ and ‘The Anti-Jason Heyward’ in recent years. I watched a few Nationals games last year, and I can safely say that the eye test matches the numbers. He had poor routes to flyball last year, didn’t throw great, and dropped his share of easy ones.
 
Harper didn’t walk much as a younger player, but he’s developed one of the sharpest batting eyes in the game, last year pacing the league in free passes. When he swings the bat, Harper is missing more pitches than he did as a younger player. Last season saw Harper post his highest strikeout percentage since 2014. His isolated power has dropped since his MVP year.
 
He’s slower, and a worse defender. He draws a lot more walks but has less power, and he’s missing more of the pitches that he’s offering at.
 
That is a typical pattern, of course. But it is not the typical pattern for a player as young as Bryce Harper is.
 
Looking at it a bit differently, Harper’s Baseball-Reference WAR, by year, goes as follows:
 
Age
bWAR
20
5.2
21
3.7
22
1.1
23
10.1
24
1.5
25
4.7
26
1.3
 
That’s a summary of what we talked about. Very good as a young player. Exceptionally good as a twenty-three-year-old. A little up-and-down since.
 
So I tried to find someone who had a similar career arc to Harper. It wasn’t easy, for a reason that you can predict without too much difficulty. Very few players have ever wrapped dud seasons around a monster campaign. It’s just not something that happens…greatness usually carries over. If a player has a historically great season, they will typically be very good in the years around that season.
 
But I did manage to find a couple parallels. Harper’s seasonal WAR looks a little like the seasonal WAR totals of Fred Lynn:
 
Harper
Fred Lynn
5.2
7.4
3.7
4.5
1.1
1.5
10.0
4.4
1.5
8.9
4.7
4.7
1.3
0.1
 
Both players were great rookies, who had good follow-up seasons. Both saw a decline in their third season before posting MVP-level seasons…Harper won the MVP, while Lynn finished fourth. They had identical positive seasons in their sixth year. They dropped off in year seven.
 
It ain’t a perfect parallel, but it’s as close as you’re going to get. It’s a good pairing.
 
Except that Fred Lynn was two and a half years older than Bryce Harper. Fred Lynn was twenty-three when he won the 1975 Rookie-of-the-Year and AL MVP. Harper parallels Lynn, but Harper is younger than Freddie Lynn.
 
Another comparable…not as good, but the next-closest parallel I could find…is Matt Kemp.
 
Harper
Matt Kemp
5.2
3.9
3.7
4.9
1.1
-1.1
10.0
8.0
1.5
2.8
4.7
0.6
1.3
1.3
 
 This is nice because the big seasons align. Kemp lost a close MVP vote to Ryan Braun in 2011, and then posted another tolerable year before falling off a cliff. Harper is a better player than Kemp…I’m not trying to say they’re the same…but their season-by-season ups and down parallel decently.
 
Except Kemp was three years old than Harper. Kemp was twenty-six when he had his big year. Harper was twenty-three.
 
So where does that put Harper’s age? If you had to guess how old Bryce Harper was by his track record, how old would you guess him to be? If you factored in all of that other stuff…the decline of speed and the shoddy defense, the uptick in walks and the uptick in swings-and-misses….how old would you imagine Bryce Harper to be?
 
You’d guess him to be twenty-nine or thirty years old.
 
He had a 5.2 WAR in his first year. That’s not something you’d expect a twenty- or twenty-one year old to pull off, but it’s believable for someone who is twenty-two or twenty-three. He had his best year at twenty-six or twenty-seven. He was banged up a year later, but still had something in the tank at twenty-eight or twenty-nine. We’re looking at a player entering his thirties.
 
*             *             *
 
Is this a fair evaluation of Bryce Harper?
 
Of course not. It’s just a reversal of how most of us have been talking about Harper.
 
Everyone who is projecting Harper’s future is projecting that future from the vantage of a twenty-six-year-old player, because that’s how old Harper really is. That’s certainly a more relevant data point than the freaky pattern of his annual WAR tallies, or the progression and regression of various skill sets. Harper is probably going to win a bunch of MVP’s, making this article look foolish in retrospect.
 
But…I want to mention two more thing about Harper, which might make an alternative conclusion a little more convincing.
 
The first is that Bryce Harper has done everything in his career early. He was playing college ball at seventeen. He was being groomed to be a major league player long before that. Bryce Harper was probably working to be a major leaguer while he was in middle school.
 
That’s wonderful. I have no problem with a young person dedicating himself to a dream, and I don’t want this to read as a knock about parents who push their kids in sports. If everyone’s on board, that’s a great thing to do, to make a commitment like that.
 
But I am willing to bet that Bryce Harper, at seventeen or twenty or twenty-six, has put more collective hours into working on baseball than just about anyone else in the world. It does not seem like a leap to assume that such a high level of effort has likely taken some toll on his body.
 
Bryce Harper seems to be aging faster than you’d expect for a twenty-six-year-old: it does not seem implausible to attribute some of that decline to the extreme effort and dedication he put in as an amateur player. He is not older than anyone else, but he’s put in more hours than any other twenty-six-year-old.
 
And - second point here - what position ages a player more than any other? What position on the diamond exacts the most brutal cost on the body? What position tends to age a player more than any other? 
 
Catcher. Being a catcher takes an enormous toll on a player. The daily act of crouching and bouncing up, the barrage of foul tips and semi-concussions, the grind of communicating between pitcher and coach while keeping an eye on baserunners is a massive challenge of body and mind. Catchers have shorter careers than players at any other position on the diamond. It's very hard to be a catcher.
 
What position did Bryce Harper play as an amateur player?
 
He was a catcher. For his entire amateur career, Bryce Harper was a backstop.
 
*             *             *
 
I didn’t want to post this until Harper had signed a megadeal with some team. I like Bryce Harper: he is a terrific player and an entertaining personality, and as someone who stands with organized labor, I root for baseball players in all of their contract negotiations with owners. I hope Harper gets a massive contract from someone, and I hope that he wins a couple MVP awards for whatever fan base gets to have him in their uniform next year. I wouldn't want this article to be used against him in his negotiations, and I have every confidence that no one gives a damn what I think, anyway. 
 
So I’ll say this: I am extremely wary of the many projections anticipating that Bryce Harper will play at an All-Star level over most of the next decade. He is young enough, on paper, to justify taking a gamble on a long-term contract, but I think that there are red flags in his record that strongly suggest that Harper’s body has more years on it than his birth certificate allows. He’s twenty-six, going on thirty. I’d be wary of this one.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments and questions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter at DavidFlemingJ1. 
 
 

COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

George.Rising
I'm a little late to the party, but ...

Excellent article! I, too, suspect that Harper is older than his age.

However, if he does age like the typical player of his talent up to age 25, he'll have an HOF career and be worth the $330.

Looking at the "Up to and including age 25" stats (Baseball-Reference) Harper ranks pretty well on some of the all-time lists: 4th in walks (and 4th in SOs), 9th in times on base, and near the top 10 in HR and runs. His .900 OPS is probably top 50 or so. The majority of the hitters on the top of the Up-to-and-including-25 batting lists are true all-time greats: Cobb, Williams, Mantle, Mays, DiMaggio, Musial, etc. (Others include HOF or HOF-caliber guys like Kaline, Pinson, Cepeda).

Thus, Harper will probably be an all-time top-50 hitter if he ages in a typical fashion.

By the way, Trout makes most of the top 10 of the under 25 lists--a true all-time great (so far)!
4:31 PM Mar 5th
 
evanecurb
It will be interesting to watch Bryce Harper's aging pattern in the future. Another guy we'll want to watch is Lorenzo Cain. He never played baseball until he was a sophomore in high school, had to borrow a glove when the coach asked him to try out for the team. He's the anti-Harper.
9:02 AM Feb 27th
 
OldBackstop
Nice article. I said a few weeks back that Harper could be questioned as evidence that a players "peak" isn't his Age 26, it is his full year three.

So was Manny Machado's...highest WAR in 2015, just like Harper, although the dropoff is less pronounced.

I think the biggest factor in these trades is that Machado is going from the AL to the NL, and his defense is a full 1/3rd of his WAR. Harper needs to go to an AL team and have the DH spot in the future, because his dWAR last year was a horrendous -3.2. If you want to get $300 mil of value out of this guy, you don't put him in right field, and his numbers are so bad you have to wonder how he would play anywhere, even first base.
6:08 PM Feb 25th
 
steve161
Back in January, there was an interesting thread on this subject in Reader Posts, started by George.Rising with projections based on Bill's methods:

boards.billjamesonline.com/showthread.php?10648-Bryce-Harper-Aging-Pattern
12:00 PM Feb 19th
 
hermitfool
Over the past couple of years Harper has appeared musclebound and inflexible. He's missing fat pitches he used to hit. I suspect a slower bat. This may well have to do with excess mileage, as the article suggests. Or maybe he should concentrate more on yoga than on the weights.
11:06 PM Feb 18th
 
MarisFan61
Has anyone here doubted that Harper is an all star level player?
The thing is, he's looking for a very extreme "inner circle"-type all star payday.
10:09 PM Feb 18th
 
hotstatrat
Interesting, but Harper''s seasons are a small sample size.
2:22 PM Feb 18th
 
trn6229
According to the 2019 Bill James Handbook, he has earned 20, 22 and 23 Win Shares over the last three years. That is an All Star level player. He had an injury recently and I think that has impacted his stats. If he is healthy, he is an excellent player.

I hope he gets healthy and plays in a good hitters ballpark.

Thank you for your article.

Take Care,
Tom Nahigian
1:42 PM Feb 18th
 
bearbyz
It is hard competing with a new Bill James article, but I want to tell you before reading Bill's, this is a dam great article.
1:41 PM Feb 18th
 
bearbyz
It is hard competing with a new Bill James article, but I want to tell you before reading Bill's, this is a dam great article.
1:41 PM Feb 18th
 
MarisFan61
At one place in the old Abstracts (an article talking about the Hall of Fame prospects of current players), Bill was more than pretty sure about Dale Murphy. Bill entire comment about him, I think the briefest of any of the player comments, was, "Dale Murphy is going into the Hall of Fame."

(I don't blame him.)

You never know. In either direction.

My favoritest example: In the late '60's, during a Yankee rain delay, the NY Times writer Leonard Koppett was being interviewed -- y'know, to kill time; they would just talk about whatever. Bobby Cox was the Yanks' third baseman. Koppett was talking about how great it was that a kid like Cox was getting a chance to play -- "He's never going to make the Hall of Fame but....."
Since I'm sort of allergic to negative absolute pronouncements of any sort, I filed that away.....
1:10 PM Feb 18th
 
DaveFleming
Dale Murphy is interesting!

Through the eighties, I don't think too many players seemed like more surefire HOF'ers than Dale Murphy. Schmidt, obviously, but that was about it. If you read Bill's old Abstracts, he's pretty sure that Murphy is getting in. But he cratered quickly: he had an MVP-level season at 31 and then just fell off a cliff production wise.

Biggio's decline wasn't nearly as dramatic, though he wasn't hugely productive in his mid-to-late 30's.

I did screw up Harper's age a couple times. He was nineteen as a rookie, and 23 when he won the MVP. He was three-and-a-half years younger than Lynn at comparable levels of production, and four years younger than Kemp.
11:51 AM Feb 18th
 
stevebogus
I really wasn't aware of Harper's injury history. The fact that he was a catcher is interesting, but there have been players like Craig Biggio and Dale Murphy who began as catchers and played the position more seasons before moving elsewhere. Harper's more recent injury history is probably more of a concern.

Few athletes are able to avoid injuries for an entire career. And, for many athletes, it is injuries which accelerate the erosion of their skills and force them into retirement.

If Harper really is as bad an outfielder as he showed last season he's going to be a DH soon.
11:27 AM Feb 18th
 
shthar
Too many teams now know that pitching really does wins championships.

10, even 5 years ago these guys would have got the $.

Now there's just too many eggheads in the GM seats.

11:35 PM Feb 17th
 
MarisFan61
Nice work, very interesting.
I've got to assume that it's a big reason that he's evidently having trouble getting offers real close to what he had expected, that it's not considered any kind of given that his career from here on will be along the lines of what we'd usually expect of a 26 year old who's done what he's already done.

I want to suggest that there's an additional reason, a thing which is shown in the data that you give but which you didn't highlight. It's a thing which IMO makes the whole basic idea of "projecting" him essentially an impossibility:

His career has been ERRATIC, so erratic. Over and above the thing of how he has failed to keep going upward after his great 2015 and how some of his skills seem to have eroded, he has been as much of a Forrest Gump box of chocolates as any player I can think of -- maybe Willie Davis, but at least Willie Davis was fairly predictable to be extremely good at least every other year. :-)

Nobody likes impossibility of projecting a thing that you might get, and I think it's an easy guess that this is even more so when hundreds of millions of dollars are involved.
9:21 PM Feb 17th
 
rwarn17588
Good point on him being a catcher for a long time. The way Harper played defense last season -- horribly, if you're not sure -- sure would make me reluctant to sign him to a long-term contract. He's aging fast into something like a creaky old player, not a dude who's 26.

It makes me wonder whether he'll do a Vada Pinson and essentially be through by his early 30s, if not sooner.
9:15 PM Feb 17th
 
BobGill
You're making a very reasonable point, I think. Another thing that might contribute to Harper's premature aging (if you want to call it that) is his medical history. He was hampered by injuries in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2018, and that can have a cumulative effect.

It doesn't really affect the thrust of the article, but just for the record, you have Harper's age wrong in several places. He was born in mid-October 1992, so he was 19 in his rookie year, not 20, and 25 last season, not 26. He'll be 26 THIS season.

9:14 PM Feb 17th
 
 
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