Here's why Harper's RBI count is deceiving

Only 14% of slugger's plate appearances have come with RISP

May 14th, 2021

Bryce Harper, notable slugging superstar, has driven in 11 runners this year, and if that doesn’t sound that impressive, it is not.

One hundred eighty-seven other hitters have driven in that many or more as of Thursday morning, including less-heralded names like Garrett Hampson and Stephen Vogt, and Harper’s 11 runners driven in would be barely more than the eight that A.J. Pollock had on May 2 alone. Phillies pitchers have five runs driven in, for comparison.

One might think that Harper is getting paid to put runs on the board, and because that is not happening, that he’s not having a strong season, but that’s not exactly right. It’s actually completely wrong. Harper has a slash line of .308/.433/.577 and a 1.010 OPS that, when expressed as a 181 OPS+, is one of the 10 best lines in baseball. He’s been a particularly bright spot in an up-and-down Phillies season.

So where are the runs? It’s not that Harper isn’t performing well; he clearly is. It’s not that he’s somehow shrunk from pressure with men on base; he has a .962 OPS with the bases empty, and a 1.103 mark with runners on. It’s because each of the seven homers he’s hit have been solo homers. It’s because RBI, as we’ve long known, is a team stat, and the Phillies as a team could almost not be doing less to put Harper in position to succeed, which is a longer way of saying, “You can’t drive in the runners who are not there.”

Make no mistake: The runners are not there.

Just look, for example, at all hitters since 2008 who have had 125 plate appearances or more in a season, of which there are more than 4,600. Sort them by the ones that had the lowest rate of plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Look where Harper is. We're talking about about 14 years worth of seasons, and almost literally no one has come up with runners in scoring position less often than Harper has.

The two other 2021 seasons here, Tommy Edman and Robbie Grossman, are from leadoff hitters. Juan Pierre and José Reyes spent most of the '13 campaign leading off, as did Eric Sogard in '19 and Leody Taveras last year. That all makes sense: You expect leadoff men to bat without runners on. The others were more in the mold of utility players who moved around the lineup. None of them were hitting third, like Harper is.

So, as you might expect, part of the problem is that the top of the Phillies' lineup is simply not getting on for Harper, and that’s mostly true. The top two spots of the Philadelphia order, mostly Andrew McCutchen at leadoff and Rhys Hoskins behind him, have a .305 on-base percentage, which is the fourth-weakest mark in the Majors. In late April, manager Joe Girardi was fielding questions about whether a struggling McCutchen could remain atop the lineup.

Some of that OBP, obviously, comes from homers, and no one would complain about McCutchen or Hoskins going deep. But if you take out the homers, which represent about 4% of Philadelphia’s plate appearances in the top two spots, and you look at OBP that way, the Phillies are third from the bottom.

Maybe a starker way to illustrate this is to point out who Harper has driven in.

7: Himself (on his seven solo home runs)
1: Brad Miller
1: Roman Quinn
1: Zach Eflin
1: Andrew McCutchen
0: Every other Phillies batter combined

Let’s not look past what this is saying. Harper has driven in Eflin, a pitcher without a base hit this year, more than Hoskins, who hit ahead of Harper in 23 games and never came around. That’s in large part because of the mysterious transformation Hoskins has undertaken from “patient, high-walk power hitter” to “strikeouts and home runs only,” as his walk rate has cratered and his whiff rate has increased. (On a related note, he lost his spot in the No. 2 position this past week to Jean Segura.)

Or, maybe, we should break down Harper's plate appearances like this:

Bases empty: 67% of the time
Runner on first only: 17% of the time
Runner[s] in scoring position: 14% of the time

That is, nearly 90% of the time Harper comes to the plate, there's either no one on or only a runner on first. Where are those missing RBIs for a hitter of his caliber? They're right there. Or not right there, really.

So it’s largely about the failings of two hitters with track records of production, McCutchen and Hoskins. But it’s also about a long-held truth of lineup optimization, which holds that you probably want your best hitter batting second, not third or fourth. It can’t be fourth because you don’t want to give your opponents the potential gift of having your best hitter not hit in the first inning. It probably shouldn’t be third because that’s the spot most likely to come up with two outs and no one on, and …

Highest % of PA with two outs, none on
27%: Bryce Harper, PHI
26%: Kyle Seager, SEA
25%: José Ramírez, CLE
25%: Bryan Reynolds, PIT
24%: Trevor Story, COL

that is exactly what’s happening here. It is extremely difficult to drive in runners who are not there, and it's hard for your best hitter to start a rally when there's no one on and already two out.

This is why the perception of the No. 2 spot has changed from the “good contact guy who can move the leadoff hitter over” to “just plain great hitters.” In 1981, for example, the two-spot had an OPS 90 points lower than No. 3 and 100 points lower than cleanup. In 2001, No. 2 had an OPS 181 points lower than No. 3. In 2021? The two, three and four spots have nearly identical performances.

This is not, necessarily, a knock on Girardi’s decision-making. It’s possible that Harper is simply more comfortable hitting third, where he has spent most of his career (and performed the best at), which shouldn’t be dismissed, and generally the gains of lineup construction are very marginal so long as you identify your three worst hitters and hit them 7-8-9. Mostly, it’s not going to matter where Harper hits unless McCutchen (who has been hot lately) and Hoskins and all the rest get on base.

There's some probably not-repeatable weirdness here, too, like the fact that Harper has six hits with runners in scoring position, including one on Thursday, and somehow only one of them has scored, which seems like it can't really last. But at a certain point, you're going to look up and realize Harper's on his way to a season where he has 38 home runs and 60 RBI. (The lowest RBI total for a 30-plus homer season, by the way, is 59, most recently by Kyle Schwarber in 2017.)

It's not going to be about him. It's going to be about the lack of runners on base to even bring home.