Harper's injury rocks more than just Phillies

June 28th, 2022

The news Bryce Harper had broken his thumb was almost numbing, by the time we heard it. We’d seen how awful that hit-by-pitch was, how Harper reacted, how everyone watching it reacted, including ourselves. It was one of those rare baseball moments in which there was no doubt that what had just happened was terrible. It was something everyone could agree on.

Harper is out for at least six weeks, and probably more -- especially with news that he's to have surgery on the thumb. As Harper himself put it, “I can take [a 98-mph pitch] to the face, but I can’t take 97 to the thumb.” (For what it’s worth, I personally do not know very many people who can take a 98-mph pitch to the face.) It obviously changes Harper’s season. But it also alters the contours of so much else in baseball.

How much changed when Blake Snell’s fastball broke Harper’s thumb? The whole National League might have changed. Here are five major changes in the wake of Harper’s injury.

1. The Phillies’ defense might have gotten better, but the team, obviously, got a lot worse.

The irony of the absence of Harper -- one of the few Phillies heading into the season who is actually a good defender -- perhaps improving the Phillies’ unreliable defense is thick. Harper’s elbow injury, the one he was holding off having surgery on (and we’ll get into that in a moment), had limited him to the designated-hitter role. This had forced great hitters, but defensive liabilities, like Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos, to regularly play the field.

Well, it turns out the Phillies have an opening at DH again. Schwarber, Castellanos or any regular who needs a day off from the rigors of playing the field will go there now, and Matt Vierling or Mickey Moniak will play center field. Obviously, neither one of those guys are anything close to the hitter Harper is. But they will improve the outfield defense, particularly with Odúbel Herrera likely moving to left. The Phillies pitchers, in this way anyway, will be appreciative.

2. The National League Wild Card race just got a little less intense.

The Phillies would not be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but they’re close, and they clearly were set up to be in the race to the bitter end. But if the Phillies fall back without their best hitter -- and while that’s possible, remember, this is absolutely not what happened to the Braves last year -- that’s nothing but great news for the Giants, Padres, Dodgers, Cardinals, Brewers and (especially) the Braves and Marlins, who now might get to face a weakened Phillies team as they’re trying to grab one of those three Wild Card spots.

Harper’s injury doesn’t mean the Phillies are toast. But you can be sure that none of those teams minds having one fewer team matching them step for step the rest of the way.

3. If it gets bad for the Phillies soon, it could be good for them next year.

Again: Harper needs surgery on his elbow so he can throw and play the outfield again. It’s a matter of when, not if. As long as he was hitting as well as he was, and as long as the Phillies were still in the pennant chase, it made sense to hold off on the surgery and let him DH. But now? Well, we’ll see how the Phillies hold up, but if they fall out of the race over the next month and a half -- something that certainly seems possible without their best hitter -- the Phillies and Harper could decide to get that surgery out of the way and have him miss the rest of the season.

If the Phillies are still in the race, Harper could come back when his thumb is healed and DH again. But if they fall out, he could be ready to play the outfield again next year. They could finally get that elbow taken care of. Not that anyone would have wished it would happen like this.

4. There’s going to be an extra spot for a hitter in the All-Star Game.

Harper was running away with the first-ever National League designated-hitter spot, far ahead of second-place William Contreras of the Braves and third-place Albert Pujols of the Cardinals. Harper, because of name recognition alone, might still end up winning at the DH spot -- though that isn’t assured now -- but it won’t matter if he does, because he won’t be able to play. So if your favorite player doesn’t get voted in in the NL, he would have been blocked by Harper at the DH spot; he won’t now. And hey: Maybe there’s a late nostalgic push for Pujols now.

5. Harper’s historical numbers will take a hit.

At the end of the 2019 season, after Harper had hit 35 homers in his first year for the Phillies, he needed to average, over the course of the 12 years left on his contract, 31.75 homers a year to reach 600. Reasonable, right? It has gotten much harder for him. Since then, he has hit 13 (in the shortened 2020 season), 35 (last year) and now only 15 so far in 2022. He has nine years left on that Phillies contract, and he now must average more than 35 every year, starting next year, if he does not return this year. That’s a number he has hit only three times in his 11-year career. Harper is an all-time talent, but every missed game counts. He had a chance to get to 600, but that chance has gotten a lot slimmer.