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Running on Bryce Harper's Arm

March 7, 2019
One of the storylines to follow for new Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper this season will be how he fares defensively. Harper’s defense cost the Nationals 26 runs last season, tied with new teammate Rhys Hoskins for second-worst in the majors. Harper struggled defensively in both right field, where he’ll likely play for the Phillies, and center field, where he played just under 500 innings for the Nationals in 2018.

Harper’s performance last season was about more than his inability to turn batted balls into outs at a high rate. Harper also cost his team with his troubles deterring baserunner advancement. Harper had -6 Outfield Arm Runs Saved last season, by far the worst total of his career (he saved five runs in the previous two seasons combined). He cost the Nationals five of those six runs in right field. From that position, Harper did not record any baserunner "kills" (a BIS term for throwing out a runner trying to advance without the help of a cutoff man). From 2015 to 2017, Harper totaled 16 assists in right field without using a cutoff man.

Baseball Info Solutions Video Scouts chart defensive plays, categorizing them as "Good Fielding Plays" and "Defensive Misplays & Errors." Harper had five Defensive Misplays & Errors that were grouped as "Wasted Throw After Hit/Error" that allowed a runner to take an extra base. The only players with more were Billy Hamilton and Ender Inciarte, who had seven.


Harper is not the only star player to have a poor Outfield Arm Runs Saved total. In fact, one of the trailers in that stat is 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich. Yelich cost his team seven runs with his arm, four in left field and three in right. Yelich has had this problem wherever he’s played. In 2017, he played the entire season in center field and cost the Marlins six runs with his arm. He did save four runs for the Brewers overall, making up for his arm issues with good Range & Positioning numbers.

Another big free agent signee, A.J. Pollock, brings a lot of skill to center field with the Dodgers. However, his arm cost the Diamondbacks six runs at that position in 2018. Pollock allowed 71 percent of baserunners to take an extra base on a base hit (go first-to-third or second-to-home on a single, or first-to-home on a double). That was the highest advancement rate allowed by center fielders last season. In a smaller sample, Harper allowed a 67 percent advancement rate.

Though Harper, Yelich, and Pollock are extremely valuable position players, they would be even more valuable if they can improve upon this aspect of their games in 2019.






Fewest Outfield Arm Runs Saved in 2018
Name Runs Saved
Christian Yelich -7
Derek Dietrich -7
A.J. Pollock -6
Brandon Nimmo -6
Bryce Harper -6
Rhys Hoskins -6
Charlie Blackmon -6


Though the focus is largely on Harper here, it doesn’t seem right to end this piece without referencing the leaders in this stat. One of them was one of the game’s biggest stars, Aaron Judge. Judge saved eight runs with his arm, the most of any outfielder in MLB.

Another standout, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber, tied Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario for second, one run behind Judge. Also worth spotlighting is Yelich’s teammate, Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who went from costing the Royals six runs with his arm in 2017 to saving his team five runs with it in an outstanding 2018 campaign.


COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

Studes: I appreciate your comment (of course) but y'know, "editorial" was quite rather a euphemism. :-)​
11:31 PM Mar 8th
* I’m skeptical of DRS. I’ve run correlations between DRS, UZR, and Total Zone with Hit location, and it’s the odd man out of the three. Especially with outfielders.
* Total Zone has him at “only” -22, UZR -14. DRS has Harper at -10 in 477.1 innings of center, which is hard to buy, as it’s -30 over a whole year. That’s insanely bad. Dave Martinez seldom let Harper finish the game in center, however, so it’s safe to say that he wasn’t good, but -26? Really?
* But it isn’t terribly tough to evaluate outfield arms given the stats and one of those base/out run expectancy tables. Harper’s arm did suck last year. He had one assist, likely someone trying to stretch a single into a double … yeah, on Ronald Acuna leading off the 3rd on 7/22.
5:51 PM Mar 8th
Hey, I'll add to the comments. I think MarisFan raises a good editorial point and something all baseball writers ought to remember.

I do think there is a lot of uncertainty in fielding stats and when we quote them specifically we lose sight of that. I'm definitely in favor of regressing individual year stats due to measurement questions.

One thing that makes the DRS range wider than other stats is their inclusion of good/bad fielding plays, which adds more variance to the measure. Having said that, neither Statcast nor UZR penalize Harper as much for range. Statcast (which I would trust the most) has him at -13, compared to -9 for UZR and -17 for DRS.

Harper's fielding performance (and stats) will definitely be worth watching this year.
2:48 PM Mar 8th
Is there anybody, other than their employees, who does not think BIS has a scaling problem with DRS?​
1:59 PM Mar 8th
I just don't see how the -26 runs figure is correct, or really any figure that high. I watched Greg Luziniski play outfield, I am not sure he was that bad of a fielder and he was certainly worse then Harper was.
1:46 PM Mar 8th
Adding to MarisFan61's comment. In the 70s people used to say that fielding never slumps. I'm not sure that modern fielding numbers support that. When I look at the OF/arm numbers here for Bryce Harper (by adding the LF,CF,RF numbers) for the years 2012-18, Harper's arm was scored at +5,+3,+2,+2,+2,+3,-6. The -6 might be an aberration.

His fielding win shares have been 5.5,2.5,2.0,2.9,3.1,2.6,2.7. I don't see strong evidence that he should be expected to be a particularly poor fielder in 2019.
6:57 PM Mar 7th
This is difficult because you don't reply to our comments, but I do hope that you or someone else in your organization at least glances at them now and then.

Your material could be of interest, but the credibility and apparent sophistication of what you do is compromised when you say stuff like "Harper’s defense cost the Nationals 26 runs last season...."

That's not true.
What's true is that your method shows that figure.

When you put it that way, it makes it look like you and your organization don't realize that the metric doesn't have the kind of precision that's needed for such a statement....or really the way I should put it is that it wouldn't have the needed precision even if it had a very good degree of reliability, which it doesn't to begin with. Your statement wouldn't be true even if you had said "about 26 runs."

I (for one) stop reading a thing when I see something put that way, because there seems no basis to think you have a real understanding of what you're doing.

Your articles often get no comments, which I'd guess is mostly due to your not replying to them. In this case, I think that this critical comment will lead to other people posting comments, perhaps critical of my criticism :-) and you'll have me to thank for that. :-) :-)
2:38 PM Mar 7th
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