Bryce Harper drifted toward the right-field wall, gazing upward as the baseball disappeared beyond his reach. A sizable cadre of Dodgers fans in the second deck of Citizens Bank Park erupted. A chant floated down toward the field.
“M-V-P!” they said. “M-V-P!”
The words were not meant for Harper, the $330 million offseason addition for the Philadelphia Phillies. They were directed toward Cody Bellinger, the Dodgers outfielder who mans the position that Harper might have held, had he opted for a short-term deal in Los Angeles over a 13-year, agreement in the City of Brotherly Love.
A few innings later, in the late stages of a 14-run Dodgers romp on Monday, another chant wafted over the field. It came from the same representatives of Pantone 294, the Dodgers fan group. But the intended audience was clear.
“Where is Harper?” they chanted. “Where is Harper?”
He stood below them, fielding his position for a team in the middle of the pack in the National League East and caught among the glut of mediocre clubs vying for the wild-card game. He was treading water on a team doing the same. Through Tuesday, Harper had an .850 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, his lowest since 2016, nearly 50 points below his career average.
The production from Harper is commendable, but far from the ceiling of his capability. His OPS was also lower than those of Bellinger (1.144), and Dodgers teammates Joc Pederson (.859) and Alex Verdugo (.855). All three are left-handed-hitting outfielders, just like Harper. Had the Dodgers signed Harper, the team likely would not have been able to field a roster that included all four players.
“Bryce is a superstar player,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Makes any ballclub better. But when you look at our roster, he’s a guy that’s going to take 650 plate appearances a year. But for the way we operate, it does give other guys a runway.”
The Dodgers’ interest in Harper was serious enough that the team sent a private plane full of representatives for a meeting with the outfielder in Las Vegas in February. The emissaries from the Dodgers included Roberts, owner Mark Walter, team President Stan Kasten and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.
The Dodgers never wavered from their stance on Harper. Even though Harper won’t turn 27 until October, the Dodgers were not interested in offering a contract longer than half a decade. The team was willing to set a record for average annual value on a contract, but it would not budge on the length. Harper had made it clear to his agent, Scott Boras, that he wanted as lengthy a deal as possible so he could avoid the speculation about his future that had hounded him with the Washington Nationals.
A few days after meeting with the Dodgers, Harper finalized his 13-year pact with the Phillies. He looked like the final touch of an outstanding offseason for Phillies general manager Matt Klentak. The team had already traded for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto and All-Star shortstop Jean Segura, and signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson. Harper figured to amplify an already intimidating offense.
Little has gone precisely according to plan. Robertson pitched in seven games before succumbing to a flexor strain in his right elbow. He has not pitched since April 14. McCutchen suffered a season-ending knee ligament tear June 3. Realmuto remains an excellent defender but has been a below-average hitter in 2019.
It would be preposterous to describe Harper as a bust. But amid a proliferation of power throughout the sport, his slugging percentage had dipped to .477 through Tuesday. Among the 154 batters qualified for the batting title, Harper ranked 73rd in slugging, tied with Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte.
That may soon change. Harper showed signs of a breakout early in the series with the Dodgers. He delivered a thunderous home run against Walker Buehler on Tuesday before providing the walk-off double that sank Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning.
After Harper ended the proceedings Tuesday, his teammates flocked to the diamond to greet him. Harper was pumping his fist and howling. The emotion felt fitting to manager Gabe Kapler.
“It was a huge moment for Bryce,” Kapler said. “And you could see it when he came off the field, after everybody was celebrating on the field, how important that was to him. It meant a lot to him. He was clearly emotional. And I understand it. There’s been a lot of build-up that went up to that moment, and I’m sure it was quite a release for him.”
Harper is not the most reliable hitter; he strikes out in more than a quarter of his at-bats. But he has come through in the clutch for the Phillies. After Tuesday, he was batting .410 with a 1.233 OPS with runners in scoring position.
“We come in here every single day, looking to win games and play the right way,” Harper said. “You live for those moments.”
The Dodgers can recognize Harper’s ability. It intrigued them over the offseason. But Roberts expressed no remorse over letting him sign elsewhere.
Bellinger looks like the favorite to be selected NL most valuable player. Pederson has hit 21 home runs, four more than Harper. Verdugo has become one of the team’s most electric players, an excellent defender with the ability to put the baseball in play. And they are being paid a total of $6.165 million this season, a fraction of Harper’s $25.385-million average annual value.
The totality of the trio makes up for Harper’s absence, Roberts insisted.
“The sum, for a major league season and how we operate, it works for us,” Roberts said. “Having Alex take a step forward ... being able to give guys days off to stay fresh throughout the course of a season. There’s a lot of value in that too.”