Two months ago, it would've seemed like a clown question. A ridiculous, laugh-you-right-out-of-the-room riddle:
Does Bryce Harper deserve to be an All-Star?
Back in early May, if you surveyed 100 people on the subject, 101 of them would have told you in no uncertain terms that, hell yes, Bryce Harper should be an All-Star. It didn't matter that he was slumping. Didn't matter that his average had dropped more than 70 points in two weeks. After all, it was early in the season and everyone goes through cold spells. The real Bryce Harper was the one who put up video-game numbers last year en route to becoming the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history. The real Bryce Harper was the one who came out of the gate blue-hot in 2016, joining Clemente, Bonds and Pujols as the only MVPs ever to win player of the month to start the following season. Or so went the thinking.
A couple of months (and one prolonged slump) later, the question doesn't seem quite so silly. At the very least, it bears repeating:
Does Bryce Harper deserve to be an All-Star?
Based on the current balloting structure, whereby the fans decide the All-Star starters, then Harper -- who collected nearly 3 million votes to finish tops among National League outfielders and fifth among all NL players -- unequivocally belongs in the Midsummer Classic.
But if you look a little more closely at his numbers -- his 2016 numbers, that is -- the debate becomes a whole lot murkier. At the time the balloting closed on June 30, Harper was hitting .256 and ranked among the NL's top 10 in only two major offensive categories: walks (64, first) and on-base percentage (.404, fifth). Among NL outfielders, aside from those same two categories, he didn't rank among the top three (an appropriate number since there are, ya know, three starting outfielders) in anything else. Although solid, his offensive stats -- 11 doubles, 16 homers, 46 RBIs and a .492 slugging percentage -- didn't necessarily scream All-Star. As for his defensive metrics (let's pretend for a second that the fans actually care about glove work), it was more of the same: Through the end of June, Harper had accounted for five defensive runs saved, which, despite being a respectable total, was tied for 16th among NL outfielders.
Said one major league scout: "Based on what he's done this year, he shouldn't be an All-Star."
So how and why did Harper earn a trip to San Diego? And as a starter, no less? Well, to begin with, it's no secret that the fan voting is hardly a model of objectivity. If it were, there's no way that Chicago's Addison Russell -- he of the .237 average, 82 strikeouts and 1.9 WAR (good, but only sixth highest among NL shortstops) -- would've gotten the nod. Then there's the fact that when balloting kicked off on April 27, Harper was still setting the world on fire. Although fans in D.C. could tell you in no uncertain terms that their right fielder has been a mere mortal over the past couple of months, it takes time for that truth to spread across the land, for it to seep into the collective conscience of the national fan base. And even when that happens, it might not matter. Not in this case.
After all, this is Bryce Harper we're talking about. Former top overall pick. Reigning MVP. Possessor of perfect hair and self-appointed CFO (chief fun officer) of MLB. More than just the face of the franchise, he's the face of the game. Or at least one of them.
All of which raises the following million-dollar question: Should All-Star selection be based solely on empirical data and the current year's production, or is it more about reputation and past performance? Box score or box-office draw?
"If you're talking about the 2016 All-Star Game, then it's who's doing well this year," said Orioles closer Zach Britton, who leads the American League with 27 saves and is an All-Star for the second straight season. "If you're talking about the Hall of Fame, you're talking about who's had a great career. Now you're going to look at multiple years."
Lifetime achievement, or what have you done for me lately?
"I think it should be a combination of the two," said Nationals skipper Dusty Baker, who in addition to being Harper's boss is a former All-Star himself. The current balloting process, which allows fans to select the starters and players to tap the reserves (with some help from the All-Star managers), suggests that MLB agrees with Baker. "People want to see the stars of baseball, but also the guys that are deserving at that time should be able to go to the All-Star Game."
"The fans and MLB as a business, when they turn on the TV, they want to see Bryce Harper. They want to see those big names. Whether or not they're having a great year is irrelevant." Orioles All-Star closer Zach Britton
Baker knows about should-bes. In 1980 he finished the first half batting .292 with 18 homers (only Dave Kingman had more in the NL), but was an All-Star snub. "I didn't even get a sniff hardly," he said. Of course, that was back when there was no player vote -- the fans chose the starters and the manager selected the reserves. Thirty-six years later, things are a whole lot more equitable.
"It's more fair now than ever," Baker said of the current voting process, which has included player polling since 2003. "It's still not perfect, because when you get a combination of players and fans voting, the players -- they know who should be on the All-Star team. They vote fair. Most of the time they vote for guys they don't even like."
Put another way, the player vote is the opposite of a popularity contest. Game recognition over name recognition. Nowhere is that more evident than at shortstop: Instead of Russell, the players selected Dodgers rookie Corey Seager, who has a 3.2 WAR and whose .949 OPS since May 1 leads all big league shortstops. Though the fans pretty much nailed the NL at every other infield position (it's hard to argue with Buster Posey, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist or Kris Bryant), the outfield is another story.
While the players -- arbiters of All-Star justice that they are -- opted for productivity and positional accountability (left fielder Adam Duvall, center fielder Marcell Ozuna and right fielder Carlos Gonzalez all rank in the top 10 in WAR among NL outfielders), the fans went for the wow factor with Harper, Yoenis Cespedes and Dexter Fowler. It matters not that one of those three (Harper) sits outside the top 10 in NL outfielder WAR, one (Cespedes) is just barely in the top 10, or that the third (Fowler) has been on shelf since mid-June with a strained hamstring. Because two of them come from massive markets with the juice to nudge the needle (New York and Chicago), and the third comes from ... well ... it doesn't matter where he comes from because he's the reigning MVP.
Not that Harper's hardware automatically earns him a "go directly to San Diego" card. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, there have been 169 MVPs since 1932 (the year before the first All-Star Game), and of those, 32 failed to make the ensuing Midsummer Classic. So going from MVP to AWOL in the ASG happens -- just not that often. And not this year.
Said Britton: "The fans and MLB as a business, when they turn on the TV, they want to see Bryce Harper. They want to see those big names. Whether or not they're having a great year is irrelevant."
In other words, the people have spoken. And what they've said, loud and clear, is that Bryce Harper deserves to be an All-Star.