MLB hot stove: Why Manny Machado will be a better free-agent signing than Bryce Harper

If you haven’t noticed by now, the biggest stories of baseball’s offseason are the free agencies of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Each is an All-Star-caliber talent capable of serving as a franchise cornerstone. Yet for the most part Harper seems to dominate the free-agent rankings lists as the No. 1 player available. Before we get too far into the winter, we figured we’d ask a question: is there a case to be made that Machado is better than Harper — and, as such, ought to be more desired?

We think so — and here’s why.

Machado’s bat is closer than realized

Here’s a fact: Machado outhit Harper in 2018.

Machado batted .297/.367/.538, good for a 146 OPS+. Harper batted .249/.393/.496, resulting in a 133 OPS+. A critic might point out that while OPS+ is a fine enough metric for most purposes, it does underrate the importance of on-base percentage by treating it as equal to slugging. Quants have found that a point of on-base percentage is worth more than a point of slugging percentage. Yet FanGraphs’s wRC+ — a catch-all measure that appropriately weighs on-base percentage — agrees Machado was superior to Harper.

Hopefully it’s agreed that one season isn’t enough to say Machado is a better hitter than Harper. We don’t think Machado is a better hitter than Harper anyway — the numbers don’t support it. We do think the two are closer than most realize. Consider that over the last three seasons, Harper has a 133 OPS+ versus Machado’s 128 mark. (Note that the gap grows if you include a fourth season, Harper’s monster 2015.)

Perhaps the fairest way to describe their offensive production is to say Harper is a better hitter — in part because of his higher ceiling — but that Machado is very good.

Machado wins on defense

It may seem weird to start a pro-Machado argument by noting that he’s not quite as good as Harper is offensively, but establishing that Machado is in the ballpark is important given he’s far more important and valuable on defense.

Unfortunately, defensive metrics are less trustworthy than their offensive counterparts. We could sit here and rattle off the numbers but there’s no point — we don’t believe they provide value, even if they do support our argument. What we will do instead is present theory.

The concept of a defensive spectrum is nothing new. It states catcher is the hardest position to play, followed by shortstop, third base, center field, and so on. Conversely, left and right field and first base are thought to be the easiest positions. Machado and Harper happen to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Machado figures to continue to play shortstop in the near term before eventually sliding down the spectrum, perhaps back to third base. Harper, for his part, doesn’t have many options — a move to first base, maybe — before he’s off the spectrum and at DH.

Put another way, if both are average at their position — and we’re not claiming that they are — then Machado is the more valuable defender.

Machado has been more durable

Machado appeared in every game this season for the second time in his career. He’s averaged 158 games over the last three seasons, and has averaged 146 since his first full season (during which he missed half the year). Harper has never appeared in every game (although he’s came close) and has averaged 139 games the past three years. His average slips to 131 going back to his first full season and improves to 132 if you include his rookie year.

Is any of that predictive? Does it tell us anything about their conditioning, their genetics, their luck? Who knows. If you believe it does, then Machado would seem to have the edge. If you don’t believe there’s anything to it, that’s fair, too. We aren’t going to draw any conclusions here other than to say Machado has been less prone to missing time so far in his career.

Machado has arguably been more valuable

Factor all the above and Machado can be considered the more productive of the two. No, really, think about it. Weighing offense, defense, position, and playing time is essentially the foundation of the Wins Above Replacement metric. Per Baseball-Reference’s WAR, Machado has been worth 16 wins the past three seasons as compared to Harper’s 7.5. Machado has also been worth six more wins throughout their careers — in less than 100 more plate appearances.

We should note that WAR has its issues. Remember our aforementioned concerns about public defensive metrics? Machado has a seven-win edge in Defensive Runs Saved. FanGraphs’ version of WAR has the two essentially tied, while Baseball Prospectus’s WARP favors Harper by about the same gap as Baseball-Reference’s favors Machado. Go figure.

We should also note that past results don’t guarantee future results. No matter which version of WAR you prefer — the one that says Machado has been better, the one that says he’s been worse, or the one that says they’re tired — it’s fair to say that may not remain the case.

Of course, Machado is one of the few players who can claim to be as established at a young age as Harper — he’s about 102 days older — so don’t expect age-related decline to be the driving cause for one topping the other.

Concluding remarks

To be clear: we’re not saying Machado should be valued more than Harper — just that there ought to be more talk about the possibility than there seems to be so far this offseason. Maybe the preference for Harper has to do with his perceived offensive upside, or the fact there are fewer recent concerns about his makeup (Machado had a controversial October and was once suspended for throwing his bat at an opposing player, so it’s understandable if that’s influencing the industry). 

Even so, Machado is and has been a tremendous player throughout his career — to the extent that anyone who deems him the top available free agent is being fair with the designation.

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