Bryce Harper: Great Player? Yes. All-Time Great? Maybe Not.

Bryce Harper: Great Player? Yes. All-Time Great? Maybe Not.

By Jonah Cole

ESPN recently released their top 100 MLB players of all time. With a list this extensive, there are bound to be controversies. People online were particularly outraged by the fact that Barry Bonds was ranked number 8 of all time, saying that the all-time home run king should at the very least be in the top three, steroids or not. But no one seemed to be bothered by the fact that ESPN ranked Bryce Harper as the 94th best player of all time while some inducted Hall of Famers did make the list at all. Harper is certainly one of the best players heading into the 2022 season after he won his second MVP in 2021. But is he a top 100 player of all time? Not yet.

Why is Harper not a top 100 player?

Harper certainly has had a great start to his career. Rookie of the Year honors in 2012, 2 MVP awards in 2015 and 2021, and a career OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage) of .916. In fact, if he keeps putting up elite numbers for four to six more years, his place in the Hall of Fame is all but cemented. So why shouldn’t he be considered a top 100 player? His age has little to do with it. Mike Trout has played just one more season in MLB than Harper, but ESPN’s placement of Trout in the top 100 best players of all time is something that no fan should disagree with. Harper’s first ten seasons however have been a mix of both greatness and inconsistency. To deserve recognition as one of the top 100 best players ever, over certified legends, Harper’s career has to be a story of consistent excellence in all areas of the game. The numbers show that simply is not the case.

Diving into the data

Bryce Harper certainly has impressive career total numbers in important categories. Harper boasts 267 career home runs, 1273 hits, and a slugging percentage of .524. But when you look closer at the season-by-season numbers, a narrative emerges: Seasons with elite statistics cover

up a career riddled with years as merely a good ball player. Not bad seasons, not even average seasons, good seasons. But seasons that should eliminate him from the top 100 players list.

Advocates of Harper often bring up his elite OBP (on base percentage), but in the first ten years of his tenure in MLB, he has only eclipsed the sought after .400 OBP mark four times. Jeff Bagwell on the other hand, a Hall of Fame first baseman who was not included on ESPN’s list, reached that mark 6 times, 7 if you include his 1995 season when his OBP was .399 is included. Harper supporters also bring up the fact that his career OPS is .916. But once again, impressive individual seasons paint a false picture. In baseball, a .900 OPS is considered to be an elite statistic. If you reach this number in a season, you should be considered an elite all-around hitter. Harper has reached this mark just four times, whereas Bagwell had an OPS of at least .900 in 7 of his first ten seasons. Harper has great surface numbers. But his inconsistent play should take him off of ESPN’s list.

If not Harper, then who?

Harper should not be considered a top 100 player of all time. But if he goes off the list, who takes his place? As mentioned earlier, Jeff Bagwell would be an ideal candidate for Harper’s replacement. He has a higher career OPS, a career total of 449 home runs, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. Bagwell is considered to be one of the best all around hitting first basemen of all time, and has a strong case to take Harper’s spot.

Larry Walker is another player whose resume is much stronger than Harper’s. Walker has a career .313 batting average, a .965 career OPS, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2020. But what pushes Walker over Harper is his defensive play. Harper is at best an above-average defensive right fielder. Walker on the other hand, won 7 Gold Gloves during his career. His elite speed and absolute cannon of the arm made him one of the most complete outfielders to ever play the game, and makes him worthy to take Harper’s place.

The legendary Tom Glavine was snubbed from ESPN’s list, but definitely has an argument over Harper. Part of the greatest rotation in baseball history, Glavine won two Cy Young Awards

during his career to go along with 6 finishes in the top 3 for the award, was selected to 10 All Star Games, and won 305 games during his career. Harper may be considered the better player by the end of his career, but someone with as impressive a resume as Glavine’s should take his spot.

Final thoughts

There are plenty of players who have had great primes, but haven’t been able to finish their careers strong. David Wright, Ryan Howard, and Tim Lincecum are all names that come to mind. But a great prime doesn’t make an all time career. Longevity and consistency are both important factors that have to be considered. When ESPN put Bryce Harper on their list as the 94th best player of all time, they let the recency bias of Harper winning his second MVP in 2021 drive their decision, rather than looking at the big picture. Harper by no means is guaranteed to flame out, but to snub other legends with great careers off of this list for someone going into the tenth season of an inconsistent career is a mistake.