Bryce Harper an MVP front-runner? Philadelphia Phillies' star making strong case

SCOTT LAUBER
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper looks to the sky after hitting a solo home run off New York Mets starting pitcher Taijuan Walker during the sixth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

It began with Bryce Harper's first at-bat Friday night, continued through his home run Sunday, and might persist for another eight weeks — who knows, maybe longer? — as the rhythmic drumbeat at Citizens Bank Park.

"M-V-P! M-V-P!"

A month ago, it would have seemed silly. The Phillies couldn't gather momentum in a middling National League East, and their best player's season was defined more by nagging injuries, including a recurring back problem, than clutch moments or big numbers.

But the Phillies are suddenly the hottest team in baseball, winners of eight games in a row — their longest streak in 10 years — and division leaders by two games over the Atlanta Braves and 2 1/2 over the swooning New York Mets. And Harper ranks second in the league in on-base percentage (.413), fourth in slugging (.570), sixth in walks (56), seventh in batting average (.302), and tied for ninth in doubles (26). He also has 20 home runs and 12 stolen bases.

"My guess is there's been some other people that have been talked about [as MVP candidates] that are having really, really good years," manager Joe Girardi said. "But if he keeps doing it, we'll be talking about it. We've got two months to go, and if he continues to put up numbers like this, people are going to talk about it."

It's time to start the conversation.

Harper got off to a roaring start, with a 1.083 OPS through 22 games, before taking a 97-mph fastball off the face and wrist April 28 in St. Louis. He scuffled for the next few weeks and spent 14 days on the injured list with a bruised forearm. He entered July with 13 home runs but only 23 RBIs, a product mostly of bad luck. Despite batting third or fourth in the order, he wasn't getting many RBI opportunities. Each of his homers was a solo shot.

Going on a tear: But beginning with a five-hit, four-RBI game July 6 at Wrigley Field, Harper has been on a tear. He's 38-for-103 (.369) with 16 doubles, seven homers, 20 RBIs, more walks (21) than strikeouts (18), and a .480 on-base percentage. He also has boosted his OPS+ to 168, second best of his career after his MVP season of 2015, and is tied for sixth in the NL in WAR (3.8, according to FanGraphs).

"He's been an on-base machine," Girardi said. "He's driving in runs. He's hitting home runs. His defense has been really, really good. He's doing everything. A lot of stolen bases. He's been very active."

Chalk it up to better health. Harper played at least 147 games in four of the last five full seasons and started 212 of 222 games in his first two years with the Phillies. He conceded earlier this year that the management of his back issues might require more frequent rest. But since he returned from the injured list on June 5, he has started 53 of 56 games.

After Sunday's game, Harper declined to discuss the challenges of playing through multiple injuries, though it's clear he has dealt with more physical issues than in previous years.

"Not right now," he said. "That's a longer conversation, right? I never like to look at the front half of the season or the middle of the season and talk about my season. I always talk about the season at the end. I'll be an open book by then."

Playing his way into the discussion: Regardless, Harper has played his way into the MVP discussion.

The MVP race is muddled by injuries.

San Diego star Fernando Tatis Jr. was the front-runner until he suffered a shoulder injury that threatens to shelve him into September, while Atlanta's Ronald Acuña Jr. is out after season-ending knee surgery.

Tatis' absence, in particular, has opened the door for Harper and a few others. It's a wide-open field with two months left in the season. The best way, then, for Harper to separate himself would be to lead the Phillies to the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, which he insists would mean far more than personal accolades.

"Everyone thinks this is BS, but I just want to win," he said recently. "It's a cliché answer, right? But for me, I just want to win. That's the greatest accomplishment I could bring to the city of Philadelphia, to my teammates, to ownership for believing in me. I just want to stay healthy so we can win."