10 Degrees: Here’s why Bryce Harper might not be worth $500 million

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·MLB columnist
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In addition to obliterating whatever prey the schedule tosses their way, the Chicago Cubs, ever merciless, can claim a less-obvious pelt: They broke Bryce Harper.

Bryce Harper has hit 246/.383/.373 in his last 36 games. (Getty Images)
Bryce Harper has hit 246/.383/.373 in his last 36 games. (Getty Images)

Now, what is broken in baseball can be fixed, and plenty of players would love to be broken like Harper is broken. The six weeks since the Cubs series have made him human after a National League MVP season and start to 2016 in which he looked like some evolved baseball-whacking automaton.

Before the four games in Chicago, Harper was hitting .266/.372/.649. Over the four-game series at Wrigley, Harper managed to raise his on-base percentage 60 points. In 19 plate appearances, Chicago walked him 13 times, including six in the series’ final game. Since then, Harper’s line: .246/.383/.373 in 36 games.

It’s a bad stretch, no doubt, and for the time being has cooled the talk of Bryce Harper, $500 million man, though those talks might’ve been a bit overheated in the first place. One glance at the landscape of big-money contracts shows a veritable wasteland polluted with oodles of dollars tied to underperformance. Part of that is the reality of free-agent deals expected to look like a mess by the end. Some of it is shocking underperformance, similar to …

1. Bryce Harper spending the last month and a half looking like a modern-day Dave Magadan. Behind the triple slash, according to FanGraphs, is a line-drive rate down about 50 percent from last season and a soft-hit ball rate of 21.8 percent – almost double last season. Harper isn’t hitting the ball well, and since the walk festival in Chicago, pitchers have approached him differently.

It’s not that they’re walking him demonstrably more. They aren’t. (His walk rate pre-Chicago: 15 percent. His walk rate post-Chicago: 18.1 percent.) For example, in the season’s first month, Harper was destroying down-and-in strikes, slugging 1.556 off them. Since the Cubs series ended, Harper is hitless in that zone, with pitchers throwing half as many pitches to that location.

These zones are comprised of small samples, mind you, easily changed over the course of a couple games. Still, with pitchers not going inside on Harper, they’ve increased their amount of pitches in the bottom two zone, on the outside corner and further outside, to around 48 percent of what Harper is facing.

Changes necessitate adjustment. Harper hasn’t adjusted properly. He is great, so he will, which is what …

2. Giancarlo Stanton keeps telling himself as his slump reaches unsightly proportions. It started the same weekend as Harper faced the Cubs, and since then Stanton is hitting .158/.242/.246 with 50 strikeouts in 114 at-bats. Pitchers across baseball this season are hitting .133/.162/.171 with a lower strikeout rate than Stanton’s.

Giancarlo Stanton has not lived up to his $325 million contract (Getty Images)
Giancarlo Stanton has not lived up to his $325 million contract (Getty Images)

His line for the season is .211/.314/.421, and the two-time NL slugging champ, whose .606 slugging percentage last season ranked behind only Harper’s, is getting outslugged by three teammates (Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich and Derek Dietrich), with a fourth, Martin Prado, mere thousands of a point behind.

All of this is material not just because Stanton is Stanton but because of Nov. 19, 2014, when Stanton signed the largest contract in professional sports history. The Miami Marlins guaranteed him $325 million in a 13-year deal that runs through 2027. This is the second year of that deal. Chances are it will last only four more years, as Stanton rights himself and opts out, but if this is something more fundamental – something, gulp, that doesn’t abate – this will make the seven years remaining on …

3. Joey Votto’s contract look like a cakewalk. So long as Votto does what he has done since the end of May – over the last 20 games, he’s at a Votto-ish .338/.467/.581 – the length will be relatively moot, and he’ll be the sort of linchpin desired by every rebuilding team. Maybe not as expensive as Votto is, with another $179 million owed from 2017-23, but his skills tend to be the sort that don’t erode overnight.

Votto turns 33 in September, and so long as he can keep his on-base percentage in elite territory – his season line is .247/373/.432 – he’ll be something in the range of a $20 million-a-year sort, even if he plays first base. The Reds signed him to the might-as-well-be-a-lifetime deal even though anyone could’ve seen they were barreling toward a full teardown, and it’s tough at this point to say they’re stuck with him. His contract is one of those like …

4. Robinson Cano’s that needs more time to fully evaluate. The first two seasons of his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners were perfectly solid. Cano this season resembles the superstar for whom the Mariners paid. He has more home runs than he did in 2014 and is two shy of tying his total last year.

The issue, like Votto’s deal – and so many others on this list – is the length relative to age. Cano was signed for 10 years with the expectation that the first three or four will be excellent, the next two or three good and the final few a complete crapshoot.

Cano is 33. Aging is the worst. Even …

5. CC Sabathia, who had defied one success-hampering trope – he can’t stay healthy with a body like that – couldn’t beat back the age gods. And then came this season, perhaps the quietest comeback of a past-his prime superstar in memory, particularly shocking because it’s with the Yankees.

CC Sabathia has quietly posted a 2.20 ERA in 2016. (AP Photo)
CC Sabathia has quietly posted a 2.20 ERA in 2016. (AP Photo)

Eleven starts into the season, CC Sabathia has a 2.20 ERA. He’s not the horse he once was – he doesn’t even average six innings a start – and his fastball lopes in around 89 mph. Even so, the comeback of Sabathia – out of rehab, into spring training a mystery, out of it a question mark – is one of the great stories of the 2016 season.

Especially because it so complicates the Yankees’ situation. Without Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka – himself a $150 million-plus man, himself a 2-something ERA starter – they’re nowhere close to their current 34-35 record. If the Yankees really are hanging around .500, will they really consider trading Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman? And if not, how does that affect a trade market fully expecting them to be available?

Sabathia’s peripheral numbers don’t exactly foretell great success. His minuscule home run rate is unsustainable. His stuff isn’t what it once was. Of course, the same was said about …

6. Justin Verlander, and now he’s got a higher strikeout rate than he has since 2009. Verlander has lost 3 mph on his fastball velocity since then, so the long-term sustainability of this stretch remains in question.

This is the issue for all early to mid-30s starters: As the fastball recedes, what replaces it? Verlander’s command mimics that of his dominant days. His groundball rate has worsened. Can he have better sequencing? Superior secondary stuff? A lower home run rate?

Verlander, 33, is in about the same place as 30-year-old Felix Hernandez. Their contracts are about the same – Verlander has three years and $84 million left, King Felix three years and $79 million – and the wear on their arms similar, too. (Hernandez currently is on the DL.) Seven-year deals for $175 million or so are inherently scary when they’re given to pitchers, and …

7. Stephen Strasburg’s even more so considering the Tommy John scar along his elbow. The Nationals still felt compelled to keep the soon-to-be 28-year-old a contract through 2023. If the rest of the season looks anything like 2016 has thus far, it’ll be a remarkable bargain.

Don’t just fixate on the 10-0 record. (Even though, yes, it is rather pretty.) Just that this is the Strasburg he’s pretty much always been. His 118 strikeouts in 93 innings, his sterling walk rate – it’s all part of the Strasburg package. He still gives up too many home runs, but if that’s the worst thing one can say about Strasburg, that’s a good rep to uphold.

Whether he can do the same with the contract like …

8. Jon Lester has thus far is a tough task. Lester’s first season with the Cubs was strong: a 3.34 ERA, more than a strikeout an inning and a strong presence in a clubhouse that, as it was transitioning from developing to winning, needed one.

Despite his 2.06 ERA, Jon Lester is still second on the Cubs behind Jake Arrieta. (Getty Images)
Despite his 2.06 ERA, Jon Lester is still second on the Cubs behind Jake Arrieta. (Getty Images)

Now Lester is at his absolute best, at 32 years old looking every bit the six-year, $155 million man. His ERA is 2.06 – and, thanks to Jake Arrieta, that’s not even the best on the team. The Cubs’ starting rotation, in the meantime, carried a 2.32 ERA into Sunday night, when their No. 5 starter, Kyle Hendricks, gave up one run in six innings and struck out 12.

The Cubs are now 47-20, over .700, and the end of June is near. And all this despite …

9. Jason Heyward, their $180 million investment this offseason, still hitting .239/.330/.339. Now, it’s year one of eight. Heyward plays a spectacular right field. The Cubs made that bet hoping his offensive upside would reveal itself. It hasn’t.

It’s still too early to lump Heyward in with the current bad $150 million-plus deals. Those in that category not yet mentioned: Prince Fielder, Joe Mauer, Albert Pujols and Matt Kemp. The tolerable: Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez. The biggest category is TBD, which includes Miguel Cabrera, Jacoby Ellsbury, Troy Tulowitzki and three big ones from this offseason, Chris Davis, David Price and Zack Greinke. The ones that look good thus far: Buster Posey and Max Scherzer. Alex Rodriguez’s, suspension and all, has been quite productive. And Clayton Kershaw is, like pretty much everything, in a league of his own. All of which is to say the expectation that …

10. Bryce Harper is going to live up to whatever he signs for isn’t folly, exactly, but it’s far from guaranteed. Considering the voluminous expectations foisted on Harper – about the same as the ones Harper foists on himself – the pressure that comes with the money will be bigger than any since A-Rod.

Bryce Harper will bounce back after this six-week slump. (Getty Images)
Bryce Harper will bounce back after this six-week slump. (Getty Images)

The good news for Washington is that even with Harper Lite, they’ve gone 22-14 and jumped out to a 5½-game lead on the second-place Marlins, who are doing what they’ve done without Stanton. Much like the Kansas City Royals did last season, both teams are showing you needn’t a superstar to carry you throughout a season that lasts as long as baseball’s.

This isn’t basketball, isn’t LeBron James erasing 52 years with a historic tour de force. Baseball is the kind of grind that can bring even its best players down for extended periods of time. The best – and Harper certainly is among them – wear it, own it and learn from it.

He’ll be back. And when he is, when the full of Bryce Harper reveals itself once more, we’ll remember this as all it was: a sliver of time when the unbreakable broke before he put himself back together.