*Research was all completed prior to recent deal sending Manny Machado to Los Angeles*
It’s public knowledge that this point that the 2018-19 free agency class will feature some historic levels of talent. Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, Brian Dozier, Andrew Miller, Craig Kimbrel, among several other household names are expected to hit the open market in the week following the upcoming Fall Classic. Bearing this in mind, we’ve all heard the rumors. In a few months, someone will go where no pro athlete has gone before and sign a contract valued at over $400 million. The majority of baseball media would have you believing that Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper should/will be the player upon whom some ballsy owner will bestow that honor. For multiple reasons, however, I believe there’s a different player in that class whose value is more worthy of such a commitment.
I’m referring to Orioles infielder Manny Machado.
From my perspective, Harper has been grossly overrated since that historically strong 2015 campaign he posted. Nobody can ever take that season away from him; however, if I’m paying that deep into the nine-figures for any player, I’m going to not just look at one incredible season. I need to dive into the big picture. I want to know what he’s done in the years surrounding the breakout (especially when said player’s free agency is three years removed from that season). I want to look at his positional value, his health, his defensive ability, his ability to produce consistently on both sides of the ball, among others.
That being said, let’s go into the numbers, shall we? For starters, let’s look at 2012-2015. 2012 was the first season for the careers of both Machado and Harper, and there’s only about three months separating the two in age. 2015 was the major breakout year for Harper, so it seems like a good point of comparison to start us off. Normalized for 162 game seasons, Machado averaged 25 homers, 78 RBI, 11 stolen bases, and 46 walks to 119 strikeouts, accompanying a .281/.330/.458/.788 batting clip. Harper’s offensive numbers were more impressive, though not vastly so. His 162-game average in the same span shows at 31 homers, 79 RBI, 12 stolen bases, 89 walks and 143 strikeouts, flanking a line of .289/.384/.517/.902. At the mean, Harper reaches base fewer than six out of 100 times more than Machado does, even when factoring in his historic 2015. For sure, there is a difference in the numbers that clearly favors Harper, but is it as drastic of a disparity as you’d expect when one of the two players being compared rode a 10+ WAR season to an MVP in that four-year period? I’m not so sure.
That’s a decent but not insurmountable edge in the early going for Harper. That being said, let’s look at the numbers in the two-and-a-half seasons since. Machado has continued to improve across the board, with his 162-game averages since 2016 looking like this: 38 doubles, 38 homers, 104 RBI, 56 walks, 118 strikeouts, .282/.336/.513/.849 and a 126 OPS+. This is almost identical to Harper, who’s at 30 doubles, 36 homers, 107 RBI, 114 walks and 142 strikeouts, hitting .264/.382/.502/.884 and a 131 OPS+. On the whole, Harper’s offensive numbers still look better, but again, it’s a lot closer than it seems and we’re only on my first point. Even if you use the injury-shortened 2017 campaign, the numbers surrounding his absence suggest he would have dropped off. If you combine the 17 games before his injury and the five when he came back, his OPS was under .600 over those 22 games.
The next point that goes in Machado’s favor, I believe, is his consistency. If you look at bWAR/rWAR, Machado has posted three seasons worth 5.0 or better and may be on his way to coming through with a fourth by the end of 2018. In contrast, Harper has only done this once, in 2015. In the other campaigns combined, he has averaged less 4.0 WAR per 162 games. When you eliminate Machado’s best season (also 2015), he’s still averaging over 5.4 WAR across the equivalent of a full year across the remainder to his career. At his absolute peak, Harper has been better to this point, but when looking at overall production as a player, I would say (and the numbers agree) Machado is the more reliable, consistent, and productive contributor (which is of no small importance when we’re talking $400 million deals).
As much as many tradition-breakers and new-age baseball minds would love to, we can’t just ignore defense. Machado has had a below average year defensively after having moved back to shortstop (-17 DRS), but so is to be expected when you move back to regularly playing as important and difficult of a defensive position as shortstop for the first time in six years. Will he ever be above average? Who knows, but he can be relied upon to produce somewhere from decent to average to slightly below average defense at an important position. In his six years as a third baseman, he was well above average, posting at 13 DRS at the hot corner in three seasons and between 6-7 DRS in each of the other three. How valuable his fielding is for the future depends on whether his metrics improve at shortstop, or if he decides to go back to third base where he arguably belongs. Harper used to be a great fielder, posting 27 DRS across his first four seasons. Since that well-documented 2015 campaign, however, he has combined for just a -5 DRS across all three outfield positions in over 2800 innings. Is he still a fine producer? Of course, but if he doesn’t join an AL team in free agency with a DH option, this decline is going to have to be factored into his situation.
Health is another factor that leads me to believe that Machado should be worth $400 million more so than Harper. Since 2013, Harper has played at least 120 games just twice in five completed seasons. In contrast, Machado missed a chunk of time in 2014 with injury. Aside from that, across the other four seasons since 2013, he has played 156, 162, 157, and 156 games. His reliable, almost-spotless bill of health throughout his career is encouraging when looking at making a 10+ year commitment to a player with that financial backing. Harper hasn’t necessarily been “injury prone” but he’s taken four extended absences due to ailments, three of which have been to his left leg which may be something to monitor henceforth.
Like many of my fellow enthusiasts who consider ourselves “baseball fans first, team fans second”, I enjoy, respect and appreciate both Manny Machado and Bryce Harper as players, competitors, and freakishly-talented athletes. If you want to argue for the player who has had better individual seasons and whose peaks (when he hits them) are higher, Harper is easily defensible as the preferable candidate for the honor. As the heated debate foments over the course of this season, however, I would personally say that Machado is more worthy of being baseball’s $400 Million Man(ny).