Nope, not giving up on Bryce Harper yet

The Washington Nationals were the best team in the National League this season, and now we’re going to forget about them.

Hey, that’s just the nature of post-1968 baseball. Who remembers the 1985 Blue Jays? Who mourns for the ‘87 Tigers? Nobody.

But before we completely forget the 2014 Nationals, I’d like to a) mention once more that they probably were the best team in the National League, and b) Bryce Harper, his down year notwithstanding, still ranks among the brightest young stars of this or any other era.

Tuesday night, I was in the middle of a rehearsal for Saturday night’s very special episode of baseball television. Harper was coming to the plate in the seventh inning, with fireballing Hunter Strickland on the mound. Just a few days earlier, Harper had crushed a mammoth home run off Strickland. Surely, lightning couldn’t strike twice. Not with Strickland throwing lightning bolts.

Boom. Crash. Etc.

Not that I’ve got any real proof of this, but just before Harper did that, I made the case that he’s actually the Nationals’ best player. How could I possibly have done that, considering he’s been nothing like their best player this season?

Projections. Ultimately, we don’t really want to know how good a player was. We want to know how good he is, in this at-bat in this moment. And even with the inputs including a large dollop of 2014, Harper’s 2015 projections make him the Nationals’ best player.

Caveats!

One, there’s just a very fine distinction between Harper (who had a mediocre 2014) and Anthony Rendon (who had a tremendous 2014, at least according to fWAR). In fact, their projections are virtually the same. So let’s instead say Harper’s going to be the Nationals’ Co-Player of the Year. Still pretty surprising, considering his 2014 numbers.

Two, any automated projection system is “dumb” … that is, there’s no human interference once you set the wheels to spinning. Was Harper complaining about a sore wrist in September? The system doesn’t care. Do his speed indicators suggest that he’s aging prematurely? The system probably doesn’t care. But here’s the thing: You can step in and make all the adjustments you like, but you’re still not going to outperform the completely automated version by much. If at all. In fact, when you step in, it’s easy to think you’re smarter than you are. You can’t resist wish-casting, and you wind up making bizarre predictions like this.

And three, I’ve been cheating a little bit. Because we were watching a single game the other night, I wanted to know how good Bryce Harper was right then; not over the course of an entire season (say, the 2015 season). A real projection for a whole season knocks Harper down some because he’s got a history of missing games … but just a small some. Harper still looks good in the "real" 2015 projection, with the most potent bat on his team.

So yeah, Harper had a tough 2014. And it could have been even tougher, as his .352 batting average on balls in play probably isn’t sustainable. Injuries limited him to 118 games last year, just 100 this year. It’s certainly possible that Harper’s just not built, whether physically or mentally, to play 150 games per season. On the other hand, maybe he’s just been a bit unlucky in these last two seasons. One thing history tells us is that most young hitters will be healthy enough to develop in something like a normal way, generally trending upward through their middle 20s before beginning the long slide – at least in the case of great players – toward retirement.

I’m reminded of Jason Heyward. Yes, there were injury concerns when he was younger, and yes: He played in just 104 games last year, when he was 23. But he played 158 at 21 and 149 and 23, and while he’s still not delivered on his early promise, or not as a hitter anyway, he’s still only 25 and still figures to enjoy something like a brilliant career.

Finally, one more caveat: Suggesting that Bryce Harper will bounce back next season and become a great team’s best player is not to suggest that he’ll soon be that guy. Steamer projects a 4.3 WAR next season for Harper if he gets 600 plate appearances … which is just 19th in the majors. Still excellent, of course, but well behind Mike Trout atop the list. For whatever reasons, Harper’s just not the ridiculously polished tyro that Trout was, or that Alex Rodriguez and Junior Griffey and Ty Cobb were. Harper was supposed to be that sort of player, too.

Which doesn’t mean he can’t become a superstar, and build a career that ranks with those immortals. It just means he’s got some catching up to do. You know, since he’s almost 22 and stuff. Still, I wouldn’t bet much against him winning an MVP Award in the next four or five years. Would you?