NL MVP Bryce Harper had an all-time breakout season in 2015 for Nationals

BY foxsports • November 20, 2015

Bryce Harper was voted the National League's Most Valuable Player. This is because he was almost certainly the National League's most valuable player. I don't want to get into the argument about the definition of "value," and there are some halfway decent arguments that might conclude Harper got topped, but Harper is a wonderfully deserving winner, and his win comes absent any real controversy. The voting was unanimous, I should probably say. Harper got every single first-place vote. Which meant zero first-place votes for Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto, who each had maybe the best seasons for a first baseman since Albert Pujols in his prime. The National League had some awesome players! Harper ran away with things. 

This was the year Harper reached a new level. It was a level people long suspected would be achievable for a player with Harper's skills, but you have to realize how uncommon it actually is for a player to perform around his ceiling. Mike Trout has spoiled us, but now Harper's up there, too, having broken out. Here's an easy way to visualize this: Before the year, at FanGraphs, we published player projections. Player projections are everywhere, and we had our own numbers. Then players subsequently posted real numbers. It can be fun to compare the actual numbers and the projected numbers, and here's a table of the 10 hitters who batted at least 500 times and who beat their projected OPS figures by the most:

Top 10 Overperformers, 2015

Player Projected OPS Actual OPS Difference
Bryce Harper 0.854 1.109 0.255
Nelson Cruz 0.766 0.936 0.170
Logan Forsythe 0.643 0.804 0.161
David Peralta 0.747 0.893 0.146
Alex Rodriguez 0.697 0.842 0.145
Billy Burns 0.584 0.726 0.142
Lorenzo Cain 0.698 0.838 0.140
Odubel Herrera 0.626 0.762 0.136
Josh Donaldson 0.809 0.939 0.130
Matt Duffy 0.634 0.762 0.128

It's Harper in first, and by a landslide. Harper was already projected to have a strong offensive season, but then he had one of the best offensive seasons we've seen in decades, blowing away the projection. There's an 85-point gap between Harper and second place. That's bigger than the gap between second and 27th place. Much like with the MVP voting results, Harper won here in a non-contest.

So it's beyond obvious Harper broke out. It was obvious this was happening back in May. Some people would say Harper showed signs in October 2014. He won the MVP because of his leap forward, but just what was the magnitude of his leap forward, historically speaking? How does Harper's breakout "rate," if you put it on a scale with other breakouts and unexpected big seasons?

I decided to go as far back as 1900. Why not? I collected all the individual qualified player-seasons, and then I narrowed down to qualified seasons that followed seasons in which the same player batted at least 300 times. This gave me a sample numbering more than 10,000. That's a big sample, and I compared statistics in Year X to statistics in Year X-1. Basically, I just calculated stat changes year-to-year, and now I want to introduce you to wRC+, if you don't already know it. It's a rate statistic, and it's our best measure of production at FanGraphs. It's on a scale where 100 is average, and better than that is better than that. I love wRC+, and now here are the 10 biggest wRC+ increases observed in the spreadsheet I put together:

Top 10 wRC+ Increases, 1900 - 2015

Player Season Age wRC+ Increase
Josh Hamilton 2010 29 90
Babe Ruth 1926 31 83
Bryce Harper 2015 22 82
Terry Pendleton 1991 30 81
Al Kaline 1955 20 80
Cito Gaston 1970 26 76
Adrian Beltre 2004 25 75
Roy Campanella 1955 33 75
Jimmy Wynn 1972 30 74
Lee Magee 1918 29 74

Two years ago, Harper finished with a 115 wRC+, which is perfectly fine, and really quite good for a 21-year-old. Having any kind of job is really quite good for a 21-year-old. This past year, Harper finished at 197, threatening to end up north of 200. So he had an 82-point year-to-year increase, and that rates as the third-biggest leap in more than a century. He's looking up only at a younger Josh Hamilton and one Babe Ruth -- and Hamilton comes with certain complications, and Babe Ruth is Babe Ruth.

You'll note I included an age column. You'll also note that Harper was quite young, and some of those players in there are less young. So just for curiosity's sake, what if we looked only at seasons from players 25 and younger? Here's the same table as the above, only with the additional constraint:

Top 10 wRC+ Increases, 25 and Younger, 1900 - 2015

Player Season Age wRC+ Increase
Bryce Harper 2015 22 82
Al Kaline 1955 20 80
Adrian Beltre 2004 25 75
Cesar Cedeno 1972 21 69
Gary Carter 1977 23 68
Cleon Jones 1968 25 66
Chili Davis 1984 24 65
Jose Canseco 1988 23 63
Ted Williams 1941 22 62
Mike Schmidt 1974 24 62

Harper here scoots into first, just ahead of Al Kaline, who was beginning a Hall-of-Fame career in earnest. You might say Adrian Beltre is a bit of a cautionary tale, since he gave back his gains in 2005. But Beltre and Harper are different player types, and Beltre moved into a hitter's graveyard, and in the end Beltre is still on his own Hall-of-Fame course. The point isn't that Harper is or isn't guaranteed to repeat the season he just had -- the best we can do is guess, and there are no guarantees. It seems like Harper is on track to do some wonderful things. We all thought the same a year ago, but now it's so much easier to imagine the best-case scenarios. Harper realized his potential. That's less common than you might think.

As an additional note, just to further separate Harper -- his walk rate increased 9.4 percentage points. That's the fifth-biggest increase in the whole spreadsheet, which, again, has a sample north of 10,000. The breakout was total. His discipline leaped forward. His power leaped forward. He even stayed healthy, which, for Harper, is its own sort of breakout. He was 22 years old (23, as of a month ago).

Of course, it's a little bit misleading to compare Harper's 2015 to just his 2014, because he had an injured thumb in 2014, and his first two years were better. Harper sunk a bit before he rose, so maybe that boosts him artificially or something. But ultimately, the takeaway isn't whether Harper had the biggest all-time breakout, or the third-biggest, or the seventh-biggest, or anything. It's that he had some sort of all-time breakout, a breakout that ranks among the biggest in the whole history of the sport.

Precious few players have ever done something somewhat similar to what Harper just did. There have been a lot of players. Maybe the most impressive thing is that Harper did it. Or maybe the most impressive thing is that none of us were all that surprised. Think of all the players for whom you've had high hopes. Think of how many times you've imagined what a player would look like if he put everything together. Players don't put everything together. Not more than once in a blue damn moon.

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