Six years after winning his first National League Most Valuable Player award at age 22, and three seasons after his peers voted him MLB's most overrated player, Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper is once again the NL MVP.
Harper was named the NL MVP on Thursday, taking 17 of the 30 first-place votes. Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals came in second, and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres came in third.
Harper, who turned 29 in October, hit .309/.429/.615 with 35 home runs over 141 games in 2021. He led all MLB hitters in slugging (.615), OPS (1.044), OPS+ (179), and doubles (42).
Harper kept the Phillies afloat
Harper's first MVP season in 2015 made it clear that he always had the potential to put up these numbers. But after five solid if unspectacular seasons, it was an open question whether Harper had another MVP season in him. Between his 2015 MVP season and the start of 2021, Harper hit .265/.389/.510. It's a solid triple slash to be sure, but not exactly a batting line to write home about — unless you're writing about how a former MVP has regressed to mortal star status as he's gotten older.
The potential to have the kind of season he did in 2021 is exactly why the Phillies signed him back in 2019. Unfortunately, he had this kind of season when the Phillies were somehow still not ready to move to the next level. The World Series champion Atlanta Braves didn't turn on the juice until the end of the season and the Mets were a slow-motion car crash, so the NL East was up for grabs for months and months. But Harper is just one man, and he alone couldn't force the Phillies out of mediocrity or stop their now-predictable late-season slide.
But as just one man, there was no one more valuable to the Phillies than Harper, and no team that needed a player like Harper more than the Phillies. Jean Segura, one of the team's best hitters, missed significant time with injuries. Didi Gregorius and Alec Bohm, who both wowed during the short 2020 season, were total duds who actively hurt the team at the plate and in the field. Rhys Hoskins had been on a tear before he got injured, and he missed most of the final two months of the season. The Phillies desperately needed Harper to perform simply to stay afloat, and he delivered. His high-level consistency is one of the big reasons the Phillies remained within striking distance of first place until the final week of the season.
Not even a fastball to the face could stop Harper
Harper's 2021 season was a journey. He looked excellent in the first month of the season, hitting .329/.452/.632 through April 27. The next day, he took a 97 mph fastball to the face that ricocheted off his wrist.
Bryce Harper was hit in the face by a 97 mph pitch.
Scary moment. He left the game under his own power 🙏 pic.twitter.com/KPGA8cyFKX
— SI MLB (@si_mlb) April 29, 2021
It could have been an actual tragedy, but the ball did more damage to his wrist than his face or head. But for the next five weeks, it looked like Harper's amazing start had been completely canceled out by that fateful fastball. He struggled with the wrist injury, his average began to crater, he spent 10 days on the injured list, and had a slow start once he returned. In the 20 games Harper played from May 2 through June 10, he hit .200/.318/.320, and his average fell to a Harper-standard .261.
But then it began to slowly climb upward, and it pretty much didn't stop. He hit .331/.448/.681 from June 12 to the end of the season, and shook off not just the wrist injury, but back tightness, calf soreness and more back spasms. He did everything he could to put the Phillies on his back and carry them to the playoffs, but there are some things a hitter just can't control. He can't make the guys hitting in front of him get on base. He can't magically turn one of his teammates into a good (or even just functional) leadoff hitter. He can't force his manager Joe Girardi to loosen up his bullpen management and find combos that work.
The only thing Harper could control was his own performance, and that alone got the Phillies closer to the playoffs than they've been in a decade. Ten years ago, a player like Harper on an 82-80 team that didn't make the playoffs might not have gotten this kind of recognition. But now, in 2021, Harper is the NL MVP.