Was Bryce Harper Juicing In 2015?

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What are they putting in Girl Scout cookies, these days?

It’s the clown question no one wants to ask.

Posing it to Washington Nationals fans will fast make you the most unpopular man in the room. The responses will be quick and hostile: withering stares, followed by rebuttals that belittle your basic intelligence.

What they don’t have, is an explanation for why a player – who last season conducted the greatest hitting clinic since Barry Bonds – suddenly looks washed-up.

If you haven’t read Rob Arthur’s article about Harper’s diminished power numbers, go check it out. He uses some advanced charts to illustrate that, even when Harper has made contact, the ball has not nearly as hard.

Exit velocity stats are hard to come by for any season before 2015, when MLB installed Statcast at all 30 of its stadiums.  It is easy to gather, with a quick peek at his line drive and home run to flyball rates, that at no point in his career did Harper sting the ball like he did in 2015.

The numbers from last season were insane, ones that even the most-elite hitters would be hard-pressed to replicate. The drop-off has been precipitous, but is not unreasonable when you compare it to his first three seasons.

Throw out that season and he has put up good for his age numbers, but nothing resembling the towering heights of last year. So, just how freakishly-good was his 2015 season, relative to the rest of his career?

Season A:
.272/.350/.462, 18 HR, 20 2B, 52/106 BB to K, 11.6% HR/FB
Season B:
.330/.460/.649, 42 HR, 38 2B, 124/131 BB to K, 20% HR/FB

Astute fans will quickly recognize Season B as Harper’s 2015 batting line. Season A is actually a composite of his first three years. His counting stats were a bit skewed, due to injury-time missed, but his ratios were all pretty much in line with each other.

For posterity, here are Harper’s 2016 stats:

2016:
.233/.374/.438, 20 HR, 13 2B, 82/78 BB to K, 13.9% HR/FB

No matter how much skewing you do, the rest of his career has been night and day, compared to 2015.

It’s rare to find I spent a stupid amount of time tooling around Baseball Reference to find players whose careers can be divided into similar splits. One, in particular, stuck out to me. For the purpose of this exercise, I’ll call him John Doe:

John Doe

Season A:
.265/.346/.431, 16 HR, 32 2B, 63/59 BB to K, 6.96% HR/FB
Season B:
.324/.408/.593, 38 HR, 42 2B, 81/77 BB to K, 12.9% HR/FB

Here are Harper’s numbers again, so you don’t have to scroll:

Season A:
.272/.350/.462, 18 HR, 20 2B, 52/106 BB to K, 11.6% HR/FB
Season B:
.330/.460/.649, 42 HR, 38 2B, 124/131 BB to K, 20% HR/FB

John Doe is Luis Gonzalez – a solid, if unspectacular, outfielder who went to play in the Arizona desert and suddenly became an elite hitter.

His “A” season is a composite of 1996-1998 – those were the three years leading up to his signing with the Diamondbacks.  It’s easy to draw the cut-off there.  His numbers show a clear spike from that point forward.  Thus, I combined the average of his next three campaigns, 1999-2001 to make the second batting line.

Gonzalez was my choice to use because he was never officially-linked to PEDs (baseball began steroid testing in 2003) and was the most popular players in his franchise’s history (sound familiar?). I’d like to believe he was clean but his 57 home run season stands out like a sore thumb.  Come on, we weren’t born yesterday!

“But, that was the steroid era.  The game is clean now.”

This is the common rhetoric Nats fans (and baseball fans in general) use these days. Baseball wants you to believe that it has purged itself of the rampant steroid epidemic that plagued it through the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.

Don’t tell me the game has changed. Since 2013, 25 players on 40-man rosters have been caught cheating – starting with Ryan Braun, another young outfielder, who enjoyed a historic start to his career before finally being nailed for cheating in 2013.

The average MLB salary in 2016 is $4.4 million dollars, more than double the same rate for NFL players. The chance at such unprecedented financial security motivates players.

The pressure and self-drive to succeed against expectations also motivates players. While not-nearly as narcissistic as say, Barry Bonds, Harper has certainly demonstrated a healthy sense of self-importance.

And, why wouldn’t he? At 16, Sports Illustrated put him on the cover, next to the headline: Baseball’s Chosen One. Since then, the public’s expectations have been nothing short of Mantle-esque.

So, you could reasonably draw up a storyline of a player who, driven by frustration and ego, turns to the forbidden fruit of PEDs to overcome injuries and take his game to the next level.

It has happened time and time again. Matt Williams, Harper’s 2015 manager, was linked in the Mitchell Report to the same Florida drug clinic as Jose Canseco.

Williams, of course, is no longer the Nationals manager. Any sort of conjecture, relating this to Harper’s decline, would be reckless science fiction.

And yet, we have been burned, time and time again, by these athletes. To be honest, we have no reason to trust any of them, even with steroid testing (speaking of conspiracy theories, what would be a bigger blow to MLB than Harper testing positive? Just saying!)

You also have to consider the endless game of cat and mouse, played between steroids developers and steroids testers. It’s frightening to think about what advances have been made, over the past decade, in an effort to conceal PED-usage.

So, if he was juicing last year, why stop using them now?

It could be any number of factors. First, we don’t know the doping-cycles of new steroids and how fast the turnaround from using them is. People forget that Harper began the season on fire, before seeming to wear down as the season progressed.

It could also be for personal reasons. Harper was set to wed long-time flame Kayla Varner, last January, but the wedding was called off. Now, they are happily-engaged again. Once again, speculation on this topic would be just that.

I am just painting the canvas of the Bryce Harper puzzle. Maybe he will get hot again, as Nats fans keep hoping. Or, perhaps, last season was the aberration, not this one.

In 2018, Harper will be an unrestricted-free agent and has set the mind-blowing figure of $400 million as the floor for any contract discussions.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the kid. This is not the beginning of a drawn-out smear campaign. I don’t want to believe that his 2015 season was the result of anything other than pure, God-given ability.

I just think it’s a half-billion dollar question worth asking.

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