Superstar vs. ‘Borderline Superstar’: Comparison of Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant Reveals Striking Similarities
In case you hadn’t noticed, there isn’t a whole helluva lot of activity involving the Cubs these days. I mean, sure, they traded for a little infield depth in Ronald Torreyes and they inked Kyle Ryan to a big league deal to give them another lefty option, but that stuff only moves the needle so far. So like any good chef without much in the way of raw materials, I decided to toss a few leftovers together in hopes of cobbling together a passable meal.
You know what, though? This is actually more like a dessert, maybe a cookie or something like that, just a for-entertainment-only look at a pair of players who’ve been inextricably linked by a common hometown and uncommonly good production. And since both Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper have been in the news due to their contract negotiations (or lack thereof), which are handled by the same agent, I wanted to compare their production to see if anything fun or interesting materialized.
Lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened.
Admittedly, the comp is far from perfect. Harper entered MLB right out of juco after earning his GED in order to accelerate his timeline a bit, so he debuted with Washington as a 19-year-old. Bryant, who’s nine months older already, played for three seasons at the University of San Diego and debuted with the Cubs at age 23. So apply whatever caveats you feel necessary when parsing the data.
Rather than build any suspense, let’s just get right to the interesting part, some of which you might already know anyway. A review of the two players’ career numbers show nearly identical results in wRC+, OPS, and wOBA. And by “nearly identical,” I mean completely identical except for a single point in wOBA. We’re talking about a minimum 2,471 plate appearances here too, so this isn’t some kind of random fluke.
I left out counting stats for various reasons, chief among which is that it would totally give away the identities of the players in question. But in an effort to discern a difference between them, I did include here a WAR figure — it’s fWAR, meaning from FanGraphs — that has been adjusted to account for plate appearances. While we’re talking mere fractions of a point, the disparity accounts for 0.9 WAR over 600 plate appearances.
Using an estimate of $8-9 million per win produced, we’re talking about an additional value of maybe $60-100 over the life of a long-term contract. Again, factors in that include timing of the deal and the players’ continued production along the trend lines established. But given that both Bryant and Harper are roughly the same age and can now be considered peers in terms of experience, the disparity in the context of their stats has vanished.
With that in mind, let’s look at what both were able to accomplish over their first four seasons. Despite the noted age gap here, the sample below does include nagging injuries for both players. It also includes Harper’s monster 2015 campaign in which he won the MVP with a performance he’ll probably never match again. That coincides with Bryant’s career-worst 2018 season, the results of which significantly dampen his overall totals.
So that’s pretty cool, huh? We see again here at the bottom how both players look nearly the same across the major catch-all offensive stats, with Bryant maintaining a clear edge in WAR. Now think about what happens if Bryant comes back healthy in 2019 and is able to post numbers similar to 2016 and ’17. Harper experienced the worst season of his career in ’16, so we’d see a little separation in the cumulative stats and a widening in the gap between adjusted WAR totals.
Where this concerns the Cubs is in their attempt to lock Bryant into an extension prior to him reaching free agency, something they’ve failed thus far to do. And though reports of him turning down a deal “well north of $200 million” have been refuted, Theo Epstein has admitted that their efforts to work out an extension have been rebuffed. That’s no surprise given Bryant’s representation and his belief that he’ll be 100 percent healthy next season.
Scott Boras isn’t known for working out team-friendly deals, nor is he a fan of avoiding free agency, so it figures that Bryant would spurn extension overtures. The rub of the report about turning down a big offer is the timing of it, which David Kaplan had said was within the last “several months.” He later clarified that the indeterminate timeline could stretch back to last winter, which actually makes much more sense than Bryant saying no in September.
A shoulder injury changed the optics on Bryant’s future, but he headed into 2018 with the idea that he’d have another MVP-caliber season. And he was on track to do just that through mid-May before an ill-fated slide turned things sideways. So while $200 million might seem great for a guy who struggled through the latter half of the season, it’s settling way low for a 27-year-old whose very close peer might be looking for more than twice that.
And if you don’t think Boras isn’t keenly aware of this, well, you don’t think. Bryant is projected to earn $12.4 million in arbitration for 2019, a figure that will jump markedly in each of the two subsequent seasons if he remains healthy. As a result, there’s not nearly as much impetus for him to leap at the chance to buy out those arb years as would be the case for someone earning, say, $5 million. Likewise, there’s no impetus for the Cubs to trade him because he’s still a steal even as his salary goes up.
But now we’ve gotten back into more speculation than I’d intended when I started this exercise. The main goal here was simply to review the production of two Las Vegan superstars — or “borderline superstar” in Bryant’s case — to see how they stack up. You’ll note that I’ve avoided to this point the idea that the two could be “back to back one day,” mainly because we’ve already pounded the ever-loving crap out of that topic. It’s also become incredibly far-fetched based on numerous reports of the Cubs’ appetite to spend this winter.
But who knows, maybe something really wild transpires and the whole situation gets turned on its ear. More likely is that the Cubs stay mainly on the sidelines this offseason as they lean on an improved Bryant to once again fuel the offense. If they want to keep him around past 2020, though, they’d better come strong with a huge offer.
So while the Cubs aren’t really making a choice between Bryant and Harper, going with the former would be the right call if this was an either/or scenario. Or at least that’s my hot take. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions, but give me the guy who can ace a 170-yard par 3 with a pitching wedge.