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2017 Rebound Candidate: Bryce Harper

Tim Heaney

Before RotoWire, Tim spent a decade with KFFL.com and USA TODAY Fantasy. The Boston University alum was a finalist in the FSWA awards and competes in some of fantasy baseball's biggest expert leagues, including Tout Wars and LABR. He squeezes in fantasy advice between rants about television, music and craft beer. Tweet him @Tim_Heaney.

The top three picks in mixed fantasy baseball drafts last year typically included Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper, in some order.

The first two names finished in the top 10 in nearly every mixed league.

Harper? Not so much. Despite coming off a .330-42-99 performance with 118 runs and a .460 on-base percentage, plus an incendiary performance through the end of last April, Harper finished 2016 as something closer to a top-75 or top-100 player.

Someone with 24 home runs, 86 RBI, 84 runs and 21 stolen bases normally would make his owners smile at year’s end. But he fell short of lofty expectations, thanks to a career-low .243 batting average.

I’ll admit listing Harper as a “rebound candidate” isn’t as dire a situation as most others, but that precipitous drop in one category is worth examining.

Below average

The likeliest culprit for that 87-point batting average drop was a right shoulder and neck injury, which Harper played through for at least two months, according to Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci. Harper’s swing lost punch. It’s difficult to generate power and getting the barrel of the bat through the zone with a weakened bottom arm that has a potentially limited range of motion.

The stats back it up: His hard-contact rate dipped to 34.1 percent after his outstanding 40.9 during 2015. Harper’s BABIP plummeted to a career-low .264.

Perhaps this wasn’t that big a surprise, because he only had topped .274 was in his epic 2015. But that year, he took steps forward at the dish, squaring up the ball better than just about any other MLB hitter and at least showing he can put up an elite BA.

His ability to clear fences was OK but looked weak compared to the previous campaign. He smacked a career-high 42.4 flyball percentage, but those extra lofts accomplished little: His .441 slugging percentage, 14.3% HR/FB and 8.9 infield flyball rate all marked his worst pro performances.

Harper hit one dinger in 19 games from May 29 to June 20, and one in 25 games from July 8 to Aug. 16. He ranked 148th in batted-ball distance, a year after finishing 33rd.

The positives

Regardless of how low a batting average falls, any 20-homer, 20-steal player carries value.

So at least last year Harper ran to make up for his woes, recording a career-high 21 stolen bases. His base running profile is decent, but that’s probably his peak. He also was caught 10 times, so his conversion rate could improve.

Still, he’s had double-digit swipes in three of his five seasons, which gives him a solid annual baseline when combined with his ability to leave the yard. Even if he just ramped up his wheels to make up for deficiencies elsewhere and will go back to a normal pace this year, it proves he can expand his fantasy contributions when needed.

Harper set himself up for those attempts while sustaining his performance as an OBP stud, walking in 17.2 percent of his plate appearances. His 18.7 strikeout percentage marked his lowest career pace and his second straight year of improvement. His bump in contact, as noted before, failed to offer more thump, but at least his top-notch plate discipline stuck around (0.92 BB/K after 0.95 in 2015).

Though he hurt his clip by gutting through injuries (which also included thumb and knee dings), he played at least 147 games for the second straight year, after missing a combined 96 contests the previous two. This allowed him to pad his counting stats to acceptable levels.

Make Owning Bryce Fun Again

The shoulder/neck issue doesn’t look like it will prevent him from starting spring training on time, especially he keeps his squat form on point:

Back is rounded a bit, but at #505 I'll take it! 🏋🏼#noOFFseason VC: mark philippi

A video posted by Bryce Harper (@bharper3407) on


The aggressive player will always carry a slightly elevated risk of health woes, or at least suffering more dings like he did last year, but he’s eased concerns by playing close to a full season in back-to-back years.

His “rebound” opportunity for 2017 comes strictly in one category -- maybe two for those nitpicking the power. It’s safe to think he’ll split the difference in both categories between 2015 and 2016 for 2017.

Expect a healthy Harper to deliver around 30 home runs, double-digit steals (closer to 10 than 20), 160-plus runs and RBI, his career .279 batting average and .382 OBP. The OBP makes him a bona fide first-rounder in those formats.

Even after a down year, he’ll hardly come at a discount. Our Expert Composite Rankings slot Harper at 10th overall – right in line with his early NFBC average draft position. I positioned him 11th in my rankings.

Harper’s uncertainty in batting average positions him below stronger five-category wagers like Trout, Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve in standard 5x5 games. Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and Clayton Kershaw deserve consideration before him, as well.

But Harper is a sound choice after that and a flat-out gift in the second round, boasting a top-end floor with a clear path to more elite seasons like 2015.