Being that it is the Friday after Christmas, and before New Year’s, it’s pretty unlikely that a top free agent signs a contract this weekend. Sure, we might get a juicy nugget of a rumor-y nature, but the chance that Bryce Harper’s free agency pushes into the New Year is now a virtual lock.
So, on days like this, an article that digs into an aspect of the Harper pursuit that I hadn’t considered is especially interesting to me. Like this one:
Going Deep: Is Bryce Harper This Generation’s J.D. Drew? https://t.co/WUmXJfGlos
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) December 28, 2018
I remember the hype, the yo-yo’ing of performance, and the huge contract chatter associated with J.D. Drew, but I hadn’t thought about whether there’s a comparison there to Harper’s current free agency, much less whether the Drew experience throws up any warning signs. It makes for an interesting chill Friday read, given the many parallels in the players’ stories.
The statistics for each player as they reached free agency certainly are superficially similar, as The Pitcher List piece notes. Moreover, the powerful lefties are approached in very similar ways by pitchers, and they get their results in similar ways:
“Looking at their heat maps middle-away and low are their pitches of choice for these left-handed hitters, despite each having a pull rate of around 40%. In fact, they share a myriad of numbers regarding plate performance. Most of the numbers indicate a discriminating eye and a knack for squaring up the ball. Neither player had elite contact rates either outside the strike zone (Harper 61%, Drew 54%) or inside (Harper 84%, Drew 86%) for that matter. When they make contact though, it’s at the same rate and the same type, limiting soft contact (Harper 14.4%, Drew 14.5%), hammering line drives about as often (21% Harper, 19% Drew), and sharing a 37% fly-ball rate.”
Drew came up with the Cardinals, after starring at Florida State, and wound up traded to the Braves in his final year of team control in 2004 (famously, for Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis, and Ray King). His first free agent deal was a then-solid (but not extreme) five-year, $55 million deal. Although he was coming off a huge season with the Braves (8.6 WAR), Drew had dealt with myriad injury and underperformance issues in his later years with the Cardinals. So he took a little less money from the Dodgers, but got an opt-out after his second year (in those days, it was a rarity). Who helped Drew craft that creative contract? None other than Bryce Harper’s agent, Scott Boras.
After opting out, Drew got another five-year deal, this time with the Red Sox and this time worth a loftier $70 million, when he was already 31.
… which brings me to the point I think worth making about the Harper-Drew comparison, and why, despite the superficial connections, we don’t really hear much about it or fear Harper’s future because of Drew’s past. The arcs of their big league careers, and their attendant free agencies, were just so very, very different.
Harper graduated early from high school so that he could spend a year at college in advance of the draft. He was playing 132 games in the big leagues when he was 19. By contrast, Drew spent his early 20s at Florida State, and did not play a 100+ game season in the big leagues until he was 23.
In that way, I think the comparison does become useful, for underscoring just how unique it is for a player like Harper to reach free agency at such a young age. Check out the players’ performances and ages in these charts helpfully prepared by Michael, The Chartmaster. Consider how much Harper had already done before Drew even debuted, and consider how valuable even a disappointing Drew was for the 10 years from age 26 to 35 (which could plausibly be the ages during Harper’s next free agent contract):
Note that if you used an average of $10 million per 1.0 WAR in free agent value (it’s a little more complicated than that if you’re inflating over 10 years, but let’s just keep it simple for now), production like Drew’s would be worth almost $330 million over that 10 year period. So it’s not even like using him as a comparison for Harper, when judging by age, is that bad!
Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the two batters if you want some more data to chew on today after reading The Pitcher List piece: