Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reviewing Publishing: The Bryce Harper Call Lens

Pundits over at ESPN are saying that the Nationals' call-up of Bryce Harper tonight may have been premature (link insider only). First, Keith Law:

Forgive me if I'm picturing Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo making the call to Syracuse to recall Bryce Harper while sitting in his chair and staring down the barrel of a gun held by the team's VP of sales.

Harper has hit a combined .254/.330/.388, including a .174/.216/.275 line against lefties, across two levels above low-A (he also recorded four walks and 19 strikeouts against left-handed pitching in Double-A and Triple-A), and while his performance against right-handers at those levels is more than adequate for a player who's as old as your typical college freshman, it doesn't give us any reason to expect immediate success in the majors.

Harper made a lot of progress over the course of 2011, but in the Arizona Fall League his weakness against off-speed stuff was still evident, even if it was less than it was the year before. We have no evidence, statistical or otherwise, this spring to indicate that he's made those adjustments enough to be ready to produce in the majors. He will eventually do so -- of this I have little doubt -- but he had shown that Triple-A was a sufficient challenge for him, and there's no reason to recall him until he succeeds at that level.

This looks to me like a panic move, a reaction to modest attendance figures for the Nats despite their hot start this year, rather than a well thought-out developmental plan, as we've seen the club employ for most of its other prospects. Contrast their adamant statements about keeping Stephen Strasburg on an innings limit in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery with this seemingly unplanned promotion before Harper can even reach 90 at-bats in Triple-A.

And here's Dan Szymborski (also insider only):

Harper's professional debut went as well as could be expected as he hit .318/.423/.554 for the Hagerstown Suns. That's full-season A-ball, but it's still just A-ball and his performance for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, a .256/.329/.395 line in 147 PA, was mostly impressive because of his extremely young age. Harper's performance for Syracuse this year, a .250/.333/.375 line in the early going, at least suggests -- with all the caveats of small sample sizes -- that he's not at the point right now where he's terrorizing Triple-A pitchers.

Spring training statistics are notoriously hard to use, but in this particular case, with such limited data available, it's at least worth noting that his spring performance -- a .690 OPS in 28 at-bats with 11 strikeouts -- doesn't actually scream that he's ready now. The ZiPS projection system loves Harper in 2014 and beyond and sees him developing into a major star, but for 2012, it only seems him as a .238/.317/.405 hitter, which isn't out of line with his performances in the high minors so far.

Even if Harper's only a .700 OPS hitter or right now, that's probably better than Roger Bernardina or Rick Ankiel, but given his hype, inevitably some people will think of it as a major disappointment. That would be a mistake as lots of players that have been promoted aggressively struggle initially -- in fact, one could argue that a little dose of adversity could be a good thing for a player with such effortless talent.

Mike Trout was promoted aggressively as well and after a solid, but slightly underwhelming debut, is hitting .400 for Salt Lake and his star shines just as brightly. Andruw Jones and Cesar Cedeno both improved rapidly after mixed reviews in the majors, both star outfielders that debuted at 19. Justin Upton hit .221/.283/.364 at 19, but was still a legitimate MVP candidate by 23. Another outfielder you may have heard of, one Willie Howard Mays, started his major league career going 1-for-26 and he turned out to be OK.

The Nats will give Harper plenty of playing time -- they're not going to call him up to sit on the bench -- but what we're going to be seeing in the next weeks is probably going to be the appetizer, not the main course. Whether a Washington Nationals fan, a Harper fantasy owner, or just a plain ol' fan of baseball, enjoy his debut, but temper your expectations.

Whatever. I'm still very excited to see Harper's debut tonight. And I do hope he loses in his major league debut. Go Dodgers!


Steve Sax said...

He did have a good debut.

And he did indeed lose.