Why Did Bryce Harper Get the Largest Contract In MLB History?

This afternoon, Bryce Harper finally ended his lengthy stay in free agency with a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. It is the largest contract in MLB history: the largest in guaranteed money, and tied for the longest ever signed alongside then-Miami Marlin now New York Yankee Giancarlo Stanton.

I’ve heard what I’ve expected to hear based on the reaction to this deal: “apparently hitting .249 now nets you $330 million”, “the Phillies grossly overpaid”, “I’m not going to be able to afford tickets to the ballpark now”, and “Manny Machado was better last year.” I want to address each of these in a clear and concise way, while adding my own commentary as to why Bryce is actually deserving of such a contract.

Bryce Harper, cleverly photoshopped into his new jersey with his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies.

“He Only Hit .249 Last Year”

Let’s dispel the fiction that batting average matters right here, right now. If you’ve taken the time to read my lengthy Statistics In Baseball: An Endless Debate essay (and thank you if you did!), I very clearly spell out that batting average is an extremely flawed statistic and doesn’t deserve much in the way of credibly demonstrating offensive ability.

First and foremost, batting average completely ignores every other possible outcome that allows an offensive player to reach base: walks, hit-by-pitch, catcher interference, and errors are all taken out of the equation to compile the statistic, and there is a lot of missing value that gets overlooked when simply looking at batting average alone. Comparing two hitters with the same batting average, and including all of their other stats, you can clearly see that two hitters that have the same batting average are not the same.

Last year, two hitters that qualified for the batting title hit .249: Bryce Harper and the Chicago Cubs’ catcher Wilson Contreras.

Yes, they both hit .249, but Bryce got on base at a much higher clip (.393 to Contreras’ .339) and slugged at a much higher rate as well (.496 vs. .390). There isn’t much debate: Harper very clearly did more with his plate appearances than Contreras, and his hits were clearly more valuable, too, as he hit far more doubles, triples, and home runs with his at-bats than Contreras did. No question, Bryce Harper was the better hitter. Two .249 batting averages are not created equal.

Never mind that he was a .300 hitter in the second half of the season, and has traditionally hit about .280 his entire career. Next.

“The Phillies Grossly Overpaid”

Eh, not really. Not the way that this contract is structured, anyway. Bryce will earn a $10 million salary this year on top of a $20 million signing bonus. He then will make $26 million annually from 2020-2028 and then $22 million annually from 2029-2032.

Yeah, sure, ages 36-39 he’ll be making $22 million, but compare that to Miguel Cabrera, who will make $30 million per year until he’s 42. The Phillies will comparatively save $32 million over the course of those four years compared to Cabrera’s deal, and he will be three years younger when his contract expires. Next.

“I’m Not Going to Be Able to Afford Tickets to the Ballpark Anymore.”

Stop. MLB ticket prices only went up by 4.6% this year using Statista and running a simple percentage growth calculation. Yes, MLB’s revenue has risen an astronomical rate over the past 20 years (which actually further solidifies Bryce Harper’s case for a large contract), but MLB ticketing revenue has stayed pretty much stagnant.

Fans still rely on relative affordability to make it to the ballpark, and MLB teams acknowledge that. Rest easy knowing that Bryce Harper’s massive contract does not directly correlate to your ticket price. In fact, if attendance figures don’t improve this year compared to last, it would not surprise me to see ticket prices actually come down a touch in 2020.

“Manny Machado Was Better Last Year.”

Demonstrably so, and he was rewarded handsomely with a 10-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres. However, there are a few significant things that Bryce brings to the table that Manny does not:

-Rookie of the Year Award

-MVP Award

-Six All-Star Game appearances to Manny’s four

-Endorsements with Gatorade, Underarmour, Warrior Eye Black, and New Era. Machado has zero.

The accolades and the endorsements overwhelmingly paint Harper as the far more marketable player than Machado. Bryce has far more marketing potential as the face of a franchise than Manny does, and it’s not even close.

Nonetheless, both Harper and Machado and their respective new teams will be a lot of fun to watch in both 2019 and the seasons to come.

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