Bryce Harper Would Add Star Power, Perhaps Not Playoff Wins
When it comes to strategic planning, the questions high-performaning organizations like the Cubs ask are often more important than the answers. For instance, questions like “Wouldn’t Bryce Harper improve the lineup?” and “Who is the favorite to sign him?” just aren’t very strategically helpful.
Assuming the goal is winning another title, it’s far better to ask, “Can Harper significantly improve the Cubs’ playoff-win probability?”
After all, the Cubs won 95 games last year and have averaged nearly 97 over the last four seasons. So generating more regular-season wins isn’t a good rationale for doling out $30 million AAV contracts. Far more important is whether Harper (or any big addition) would improve the offense’s consistency in order to increase the Cubs’ chances of winning more playoff games.
When explaining the Cubs’ hot-and-cold offense, a common refrain has been, “Chili Davis, Chili Davis, Chili Davis.” However, as I’ve noted in the past, a major overlooked puzzle piece remains the lineup’s inability to hit power arms, especially in the playoffs when the preponderance of such pitchers spikes upward.
As evidence, consider that the Cubs’ OPS against power arms went from best in the NL in 2016 to seventh in both 2017 and 2018. Likewise, the Cubs went from posting a 4-4 record in games started by elite pitchers during their World Series run to going 2-6 the last two postseasons. And against other playoff starters? The Cubs have dominated, going 8-3.
Which brings us back to Harper, whose 2018 batting average (.249) Cubs Insider’s Brendan Miller rightly cautioned critics not to use as a be-all-end-all measuring stick. That’s a good thing for Harper because against power arms in 2018, his batting average dropped even further to an abysmal .202.
For the record, I agree with Jed Hoyer, who says a slash line – batting average/OBP/slugging percentage – remains the best snapshot of a hitter’s overall contributions. In fact, reviewing Harper’s entire 2018 power-arm slash line proves Hoyer’s point. If we only considered Harper’s .202 average against power arms, we overlook his 11 homers and 27 percent walk rate against these same pitchers. This resulted in a slash line of .202/.438/.566, for an impressive 1.004 OPS.
So unlike most of the Cubs lineup, power pitchers aren’t complete Kryptonite for Harper. He didn’t rack up a ton of hits against them, largely because they pitched around him so frequently, but he hit a third of his homers in the sample in question. So does this mean the Cubs should start shoveling wheel barrels of money at Harper?
Before we answer that, let’s at least drill down one more level. The power-arm stats noted above combine all kinds of pitchers into the same bucket. It includes true elites such as Max Scherzer and Josh Hader with less successful high-strikeout arms like Nick Pivetta and Justin Wilson. But in the playoffs, it’s the elite power arms the Cubs most need to overcome to get to the World Series and another trophy.
To evaluate this, let’s focus on Harper’s career performance against just these elite pitchers. Specifically, we’ll look at the 20 or so best power starters and relievers from among the eight teams that reached this year’s division championship series.
Harper’s slash line over 126 applicable plate appearances is then .198/.268/.381, for a .649 OPS and, surprisingly, just one home run. And that’s without Chili Davis to blame! Now compare this to the combined stats of Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., and Ian Happ, the three players most likely to lose at-bats with a Harper signing (we’ll assume Ben Zobrist maintains his playing time).
I’ve included regular-season numbers, but I’d really like us to pay attention to the right side of the chart. What we see is Harper’s huge advantage in OPS narrows compared to the Cubs’ young trio. However, Harper still represents a tangible upgrade. But compared to the overall team average OPS (inclusive of at-bats by pitchers), Harper’s OPS is now only modestly higher (.659 versus .614).
Not quite the major playoff boost one would hope for from a six-time All-Star. Schwarber fans might also warn that the above numbers are based on regular-season at bats, but performing in the playoffs can be a different beast. So how do Harper and Schwarber compare in the playoffs against elite pitchers?
Schwarber sports a career .306 playoff batting average and 1.016 OPS. These high numbers are based largely on his strong playoff performances in 2015 and ’16, with his success dropping precipitously the last two postseasons. That said, his six career postseason homers have included shots off elite arms like Yu Darvish, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Gerrit Cole.
By comparison, Harper has produced a more modest playoff slash line of.211/.315/.487 for an .801 OPS. This comprises three average-to-poor playoff series and one prodigious series (2014 against the Giants). That latter set accounted for three of his five career playoff homers. However, he did his biggest damage in that series largely off non-elite Giants relievers: two homers off Hunter Strickland and one off Jean Machi.
This deeper dive suggests that, while Harper would certainly help the Cubs generate more runs against pitchers they already fare well against, he may not significantly move the needle against elite power arms. Then again, maybe he achieves his career playoff breakout with the Cubs. How’s that for your basic low-pressure $300 million bet?
But if Harper seems an iffy bet to add playoff wins, who might be better? Here’s a list of some other big free agents, including the ubiquitous Manny Machado. Many names intrigue, but each comes with a caveat.And those caveats?
- Adrian Beltre will be 40 next year, and injuries limited him to 119 games in 2018. That said, his power-arm slash line this past season was actually better than his generally impressive career numbers. Think of him as another Zobrist whose playing time Joe Maddon would need to manage carefully.
- Though entering his age-33 season, Josh Donaldson is definitely in decline and injuries have prevented him from playing a full season in any of the last three years.
- Michael Brantley’s elite power-arm OPS is on par with Harper’s. Thus he’d be more affordable but, on paper at least, little more than a marginal playoff-win upgrade.
- Given his great numbers, Machado would be a no-brainer if he agreed to play third base. But no team since 1945 has won a World Series employing a shortstop with his defensive profile. Perhaps he and the Dodgers can prove the lone exception this year.
So where does that leave the Cubs when it comes to increasing their playoff-win probability this offseason? There are options beyond these big names, but I will leave that equally complex calculus for a future post. Stay tuned.