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Can Bryce Harper’s MVP-Level Season Drag the Phillies to the Playoffs?

Philadelphia has been mired in .500-ish seasons for the past few years, but buoyed by a surging Harper, the team is looking to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2011

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’ve ever peed in a suburban powder room, you know the line. It’s usually found hanging in a cutesy little frame above the hand towels—the story about God and footprints in the sand: “Where you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Imagine, then, on a similar allegorical beach, finding one set of footprints that stretch for only a few paces, after which they’re engulfed by a humongous slash riven through the dirt. A trench plowed out by one man, dragging a fully laden and beached cargo barge across the desolate shore.

It was then that Bryce Harper carried the Phillies.

Perhaps this metaphor is unkind to a few of Harper’s teammates: Jean Segura, Cy Young contender Zack Wheeler, or surprising 26-year-old Ranger Suárez, who’s having the 2012 Kris Medlen season, only left-handed. But as much of the rest of the team has been struck down by injury or maintained a frustratingly fleeting relationship with competence, Harper has pulled everyone’s weight.

Since last week, the Phillies—a team most charitably described as streaky—have cut their deficit in the NL East in half. And Harper has been instrumental in that effort. When they turned a 7-0 deficit into a 17-8 win over the Cubs last Thursday, Harper went 3-for-4 with two walks. He put the Phillies up with a double in the sixth and iced the game with a mammoth homer an inning later.

Harper has reached base in 15 consecutive games, and in 27 out of 28 games in the past month. In that time, he’s hit 11 home runs and posted an OBP of .500. Peak Barry Bonds–level production, in other words, albeit in a small sample.

Anyone who’s followed Mike Trout’s career knows that there are limits to how much one baseball player—particularly a position player—can do to help his team win. But Harper is testing those limits. The 28-year-old right fielder is currently tied for the league lead in wRC+ among qualified hitters, and leads outright in slugging percentage. And despite missing 21 games, he’s in the top three in both fWAR and WARP among position players.

FanGraphs rates Harper’s offense as being worth 49.2 runs this year, second in baseball behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The Phillies collectively are a minus-30.9 in that stat, which ranks 17th and is not half bad for a team that’s started Ronald Torreyes in more than half its games. Replace Harper with an average offensive player—Michael Conforto, for example, who is within a run of average by this metric—and the Phillies would end up 26th, 80.1 runs in the red.

And while narratives matter less than ever in awards voting, Harper’s got a doozy of a story. He’s been at his best when his team has needed him the most, hitting .352/.484/.754 since the All-Star break. In high-leverage situations, his OBP is .569; with men on base, his wRC+ is 169, third highest among qualified hitters. He’s been the best hitter in the National League this season, on a team that’s needed every stroke of offense in order to maintain even tenuous contact with the playoff bubble. This is why the Phillies gave him the richest contract in American organized sports two years ago—because he could turn in an MVP-caliber season like this one.

When Harper signed his 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies in 2019, the contract perfectly encapsulated the player. It was the biggest contract in MLB history at the time, appropriate for a six-time All-Star and MVP. And its length suited a player who’d been a Sports Illustrated cover athlete at 16, a Golden Spikes winner at 17, an All-Star at 19, and an MVP at 22. Harper could play out the whole deal and still hit free agency again just after turning 39.

But like Harper, the deal was also constructed to portray a certain image. The Phillies and Harper landed on a total value just barely high enough to eclipse Giancarlo Stanton’s record, when the average annual value of the deal—just shy of $25.4 million—was in actuality a bit shy of superstar-level money. Most similar deals contain option years and opt-out clauses; but just days before Harper signed on the dotted line, it was reported that the final holdup on the contract was the Phillies’ unwillingness to provide an opt-out. When the ink was dry, however, Harper said it was his choice not to include any such language, as a sign of his commitment to the team.

Getting the record contract—since surpassed by Trout—and signaling that he was in Philadelphia for the long haul were calculated messages. So much of Harper’s public persona is deliberate, from his charmingly blunt pandering to Phillies fans to his on-field manner of dress: colorful headbands, bespoke cleats, copious eye black. He’s MLB’s first glam-rock superstar.

Whether the Phanatic-themed spikes are part of a deliberate David Bowie–style metacommentary on celebrity, only Harper can say for certain. However, it’s indisputable that ever since he’s been in the public eye—ever since he was a child, in other words—Harper has performed superstardom. Every athlete of his level does this in some way—even Trout, who’s about as Hollywood as an old flannel shirt and likes it that way. But not everyone likes affectation. And while Harper has, for the most part, avoided coming off like the young Alex Rodriguez, whose awkward thirstiness helped pave the way for him to briefly become a national pariah, he has faced questions about his sizzle-to-steak ratio since his debut.

Harper’s flashes of greatness have been astounding. In 2012, he put together the best offensive season by a teenager since Tony Conigliaro in 1964. At age 22, he hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, one of the greatest offensive seasons of the 21st century, and one of the best ever for a player so young. But those peaks, punctuated by huge individual highlights in high-profile events, also made the rest of his career look disappointing.

Harper hasn’t always performed like a superstar. He’s struggled to stay healthy; his defense has come and gone, as has his game power—which surprised everyone who’d ever seen him yank a hanging breaking ball 450 feet down the right-field line. While he’s never been anything less than an excellent all-around player and on-base machine, that’s not the expectation he set early on. Harper promised us Griffey, but too frequently delivered a rich man’s Brad Hawpe. Yes, Harper got the Nats to the playoffs consistently, but it was only after he left that they broke through and won a title. That summation is reductive and unfair—Washington’s title push had more to do with gaining Juan Soto than losing Harper—but it encapsulates the essence of what makes Harper such a vexatious figure.

Harper arrived in Phillies camp in 2019 as a liberator, greeted by a fan base eager to be liberated. Since the team won five division titles between 2007 and 2011, the Phillies had spent the better part of a decade immured in Aaron Sorkin’s proverbial 50 feet of crap—struggling to develop talent internally, dealing with a rookie GM who looked like he was in over his head, and suffering while said GM’s handpicked manager ran the team into the ground. Harper was supposed to be the man to turn things around, the team’s first superstar since the days of Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

The year before Harper arrived, the Phillies finished about .500. They finished about .500 in Harper’s first season in Philadelphia. Then, for the 2020 season, they signed Wheeler, replaced the polarizing Gabe Kapler with proven championship manager Joe Girardi ... and still finished about .500.

Things are scarcely better this year. The bullpen still stinks. Rhys Hoskins is hurt. So is Zach Eflin, who for the third or fourth year running hasn’t been able to complete a breakout season. Erstwhile no. 1 starter Aaron Nola is pitching like he angered a vengeful sorceress over the offseason. Didi Gregorius got pseudo-gout. Girardi has refused to play top-three picks Mickey Moniak and Alec Bohm—not that either of them has hit well enough (or stayed healthy enough, in Bohm’s case) to give Girardi pause. Oh, and the team has just recently resolved a season-long internal fight over COVID-19 vaccination.

The Phillies are hot right now, and just two games out of a playoff spot, but that has more to do with the Braves and Mets being similarly unlucky and/or shambolic this season. The Phillies are just three games over .500. They’re 5-5 in their past 10, 11-9 in their past 20, and 15-15 in their past 30. This is still a .500 team, give or take. Just like it has been for four years, two managers, and two front-office regimes.

The difference is that Harper, who was disappointing in 2019 but better than he got credit for in 2020, is putting the team on his back. Even more so than Jimmy Rollins did in his MVP campaign in 2007, or Ryan Howard in his 58-homer campaign the year before. Harper’s OPS+ currently stands at 183. For context, only seven active players—including Harper in 2015—have posted an OPS+ of 180 or better in a full 162-game season. Harper’s OPS+ is the second highest by a Phillies hitter in the live ball era, trailing only Mike Schmidt, who posted a 198 in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign. Whether he wins the MVP or not, Harper is having a historic season.

For all the bullet holes in their feet, the Phillies control their own destiny. They’re currently in the middle of a seven-game run against the Orioles (who are on pace to lose 111 games this season) and Pirates (on pace to lose 101). It’s not a certainty that they’ll bank enough wins to keep pace with Atlanta—the Phillies lost five of seven to the Marlins and Rockies earlier this month and are just 42-36 against teams with losing records. But if they do, they’ll head to Cobb County for a decisive three-game series against the Braves early next week.

If Harper continues to carry the team, they’ll make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. It’s a huge responsibility for one player and a burden imposed on him by failures elsewhere in the organization. But it’s the role he asked to play when he signed three years ago.