In some ways, the present moment looks like a pinnacle for Bryce Harper. Tuesday evening, the 25-year-old Washington Nationals slugger will be starting in the All-Star Game in his home ballpark, marking his fourth consecutive appearance at the midsummer classic and the sixth of his seven-year career. Monday night, he made his much-anticipated return to the Home Run Derby (he long maintained he’d prefer to participate in Washington) and, on the strength of his trademark cloud-cleaving swing, won in style.* When Harper reaches free agency this winter, he could sign the most lucrative contract in baseball history. For a player whose professional life has often mirrored the tropes of a sports video game—he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years old, debuted in the majors and won Rookie of the Year honors at 19, and was named the MVP at 22—taking center stage at Major League Baseball’s marquee in-season event is a fitting continuation.
But there’s trouble below the surface. For one thing, Harper’s Nationals, heavily favored to win the National League East at the season’s start, find themselves sitting right at .500 and looking up at the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves in the division standings. For another, Harper simply hasn’t been all that great this year. His 23 home runs have him tied for eighth overall, but his batting average sits at .214, by far a career low, while his strikeout total is on pace to dwarf his previous high. His defense in right field, once part of the package that made him a seemingly prototypical five-tool player, grades as abysmal. According to Baseball Reference’s “wins above replacement” (or WAR) metric, which weighs a player’s contributions in every facet of the game, Harper hasn’t added a single victory to the Nationals’ ledger this season. His WAR during his MVP campaign, for comparison, was 10.0.