Bryce Harper and the First Base Profile

Does he fit the first base profile? Defy it? Does it matter?

Crossing a decade of teaching high school, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with patterns in literature and their ability to transcend genres. As a student of literature, archetypes represent one of my primary fascinations. Archetypes represent the standard, through which all subsequent characters, symbols, etc. are replicated on some level.

I especially love when an archetype gets turned on its head. Paul Atriedes looks like the archetypal hero across most of Dune, but becomes something much more sinister by Messiah, whether by his own devices or not. La La Land & Past Lives feature the typical love story arc, but culminate in something much less satisfying and much more akin to actual, real life outcomes.

The arrival of Bryce Harper at first base late last year offered a similar challenge to the archetype we’ve come to expect at the position. A charismatic outfielder with loud tools didn’t seem like the typical player we’ve come to expect at the position.

After all, Dictionary.com defines “first baseman” as “the player whose position is first base.” Doesn’t sound like Harper.

Wikipedia takes things a bit further:

A first baseman, abbreviated 1B, is the player on a baseball or softball team who fields the area nearest first base, the first of four bases a baserunner must touch in succession to score a run. The first baseman is responsible for the majority of plays made at that base. In the numbering system used to record defensive plays, the first baseman is assigned the number 3.

Also called first sacker or cornerman, the first baseman is ideally a tall player who throws left-handed and possesses good flexibility and quick reflexes.

Not a lot of Harper there, either.

For additional guidance, we can refer to the official website of Major League Baseball, too:

The first baseman positions himself to the right of the first-base bag and toward the back of the infield dirt when no runner occupies first base or on the first-base bag after a batter reaches first base.

The first baseman is responsible not only for fielding ground balls hit in his vicinity but also for catching throws from other infielders to force a runner out at first base. The first baseman often has to “scoop” one-hop throws from an infielder or pick low throws out of the dirt.

Based on the literal definitions of “first baseman,” we’re not seeing a whole lot of association with the baseball player we’ve come to know in the form of Bryce Harper.

We’ll circle back to the scoop note (and Harper) in a bit, but I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about defense in baseball. A good chunk of even that time is spent pondering the life of a first baseman, in particular. Such contemplation ranges from wondering what they’re talking about with each baserunner to how we can properly evaluate the position in the face of an analytics system that finds every possible way to dislike the position at large.

It’s a fascinating position. Not to disparage other spots on the field, which are all fun and unique in their own way. But between a specific offensive profile and an evolving defensive one, we as a baseball community likely fail to recognize just how nuanced it is.


Bucking Dated Perceptions


Unfortunately for me (us?), there isn’t a singular resource that defines what the first base profile specifically looks like. We have a decent idea and can make assumptions, though. If we were to overgeneralize the position, based on the complete history of the sport, we’re looking for a burly bopper who can catch a baseball most of the time. Probably someone less athletic than other positions on the field, but of a certain height as well. We have the examples to back it up, too. Frank Thomas. Jim Thome. Pete AlonsoAnthony Rizzo.

At the same time, such generalizing fails to acknowledge the evolution of the position. There is still that element of pop in the bat, but the physical profile of the position has changed over the years. It’s no longer solely a spot for someone less athletic and of above average height. We’ve got the tall, lanky guys (Matt Olson), but also the “short” guys (Jake Cronenworth, Michael Busch). The stereotype still exists in some cases. Christian Walker springs to mind. But just as baseball has evolved in a collective sense, the individual position has followed suit.

The offensive profile still exists, though. You want above average power. The Top 10 ISOs at the position over the last twenty-ish years average out at .285. The only position close to that output is outfield, at .273. Even that comparison is flawed, given that you’re looking at a player pool three times as large. Regardless, it’s the most powerful position on the field. Often times, you’re looking at power as the tool. Because of that, you might have to persist through a higher-end K%, but can also reap the benefit of an above average walk rate. Pitchers are less inclined to work against big power situationally, so a certain level of OBP skill is likely to be present. You might also get occasional speed — Paul Goldschmidt as an example — but it’s only that.

The TL;DR version of first base from an offensive perspective is not unlike the one we’ve come to expect: big power, elevated strikeouts and walks, corresponding OBP, and more modernly, occasional speed. While we’ve seen more toolsy players make their way to the spot in recent years (Cronenworth, etc.), the offensive archetype hasn’t shifted all that much.


Defensive Growth (With & Without the Shift)


Let’s flip it over to the other side of the ball. With the change in physical perception of the position has come the defensive evolution of the position itself. An emphasis on defense means that you’re no longer trying to “hide” someone at first base in the way that — at least anecdotally — teams used to.

The presence of defense in baseball has grown exponentially over the past few decades. Its importance has grown. The way we evaluate it has grown. Defensive strategy has grown. Teams build their entire identities around it. In short, defense is better now than it ever has been.

First base isn’t immune from that growth. While the shift didn’t impact the movement of the position, it did require a bit more range out of first base personnel (though not to the extent of other positions). Interestingly, the “best” defensive first baseman were middle tier in their willingness to line up farther away from the bag. Nevertheless, the developments that manifested during the era of heavy shifting indicated a new horizon in the first base profile. You didn’t need someone willing to stray halfway to second base or have upper percentile sprint speed over short distances. But you did need someone with the athleticism to move between their starting position and the bag, while employing at least median sprint speed.

The scoop is also a factor at the position in a way that it’s not elsewhere. Spencer Torkelson’s 29 scoops paced the league last year. Vladimir Guerrero Jr led in each of 2021 and 2022 with 27 combined. It’s possible that the shift had a bearing on that with a shorter distance required on infield throws. Especially given that Pete Alonso led the way with 34 in 2019, and Matt Olson did so with 44 the year before. So we’re checking off range, short distance sprint speed, and scoops in pursuit of a first base defensive profile.

Defensive metrics, though, have a hard time pinning down exactly what makes a quality first baseman. Range and arm aren’t as much of a necessity at the position in the way that it is elsewhere. This likely hurts them in the metrics game. Those that can defy various analytical tools (FRV, OAA, DRS) at least give us a picture of the very best. Beyond that, though, we just want adequate outcomes as far as the defensive numbers go.

So if we’re trying to nail down the profile of a defensive first baseman, we want quickness in short distances. We want scoops. And we want at least average production in the defensive metrics.


Is Bryce Harper a First Baseman? 


Which, at last, brings us back to Bryce Harper. To restate the profile we’ve established here, these are the factors we’re looking for in the first base archetype:

  • Routine power
  • High K% compensated by high BB%
  • Regular OBP given above factors
  • Quickness
  • Average defensive output
  • Scoops

The 2024 season represents Harper’s first full season at the position. Upon his return from Tommy John surgery in 2023, he spent the bulk of his time DHing. Starting on July 21st of last year, he appeared at first in 36 games, in addition to the handful in October. It wasn’t a full-time stint, as he mixed in at DH quite a bit as part of that transition. What that means, though, is that as of this writing, Bryce Harper has played 73 games at first base for the Philadelphia Phillies. Let’s discuss the 73-game breakdown.

In the cumulative sense, those 74 games have seen Harper go for a .268 ISO. He’s maintaining a K% of 22.6 & a BB% of 16.6. His resulting OBP sits at .389. There’s four steals scattered across those games, as well. If we want to throw in our favorite analytical buzz categories, his wRC+ is at 155 & his OPS+ is 151.

Routine power? Check. Even if it’s not home run power, as Harper only has 30 home runs across the last two seasons, the ISO indicates impactful contact. High K% & High BB%? Mostly check. Harper is a bit on the higher end with his strikeout rate, but it’s also roughly league average. Even if it was problematic, he still compensates with a walk rate that is roughly twice the league average mark. The OBP game takes care of itself, as only a very small handful of the usual suspects have him beat there. If we’re looking to fit someone into a box with their offensive output, Bryce Harper has broken right out of it. He isn’t your typical first baseman with the stick. He’s better.

In the above FanGraphs article, Luke Hooper referenced 40-foot splits with regard to sprint speed, as it represented the higher end of distance the position needed to cover. Harper’s 40-foot split is fifth best among first basemen (2.20 ft/sec), in league with the likes of a more athletic profile like Cronenworth or Michael Busch. He’s also accumulated three Defensive Runs Saved, and features an FRV of two across those 73 appearances. And, of course, he has a pair of scoops in there.

Checking back, we’ve got the lateral movement. We have adequate defensive output from a statistical standpoint. And while we don’t have the scoops, it’s important to note that this is a volume figure and not a rate. So the limited sample hurts him against his positional counterparts there.

Based on five of the six factors provided then, Bryce Harper sits as 83 percent a first baseman. If we wanted to give him some slack on scoops and give him another half factor, then he’d be 91 percent well-suited for the position.


Bryce Harper’s Place in the Profile


That number — as arbitrary as it is in light of myself, a uniquely unqualified individual, being responsible for creating the profile in the first place — seems weirdly appropriate. Bryce Harper isn’t all the way a first baseman. We’ve seen him at his athletic best. We’ve watched him play like his hair’s on fire. He probably features too many tools to be shoehorned into life as a first sacker.

At the same time, the skill set plays. The power, the on-base skills, and the specific athleticism requisite for the position are all there. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s transitioned as well as he has. That’s also to say nothing of the unquantifiable factors that could allow him to actually defy the first base archetype the more he grows accustomed. Few have the presence that Bryce Harper brings to the position. Even fewer still demonstrate the swagger wrought by his violent swing and neat gear. A position that can never look cool in the way that shortstop or the outfield can has the chance to be transformed in a new way under Harper’s care.

It’s a unique profile that plays well for the position. Perhaps most importantly, though, it has the potential to keep him healthy far more than scrambling around the outfield grass would have.

He may never be as elite as Christian Walker with the glove or post the gaudy raw power of a Matt Olson. But he absolutely has the makings of someone with a toolbox to be elite at the position in his own way. He offers something more well-rounded that speaks to the evolution of the position at large, rather than someone whose isolated tools fit him into more of a box. We can fit Harper into the first base box, but we can’t fit the box onto Harper.

Schrödinger’s first baseman.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

One response to “Bryce Harper and the First Base Profile”

  1. Joseph Mulvey says:

    Randy, I watch Harper regularly. He was good as a newcomer to first, and has only gotten better. He plays a step further towards the hole than anyone else, and he gets to a lot of balls. His footwork around the bag would make one think he has played the position longer than he has. And he really seems to be working hard towards being the best he can be. He’s not just some tolerable meat who got stuck at first. Randy, he’s going to win the golden glove at first. Maybe not this year, as he doesn’t have the reputation that so many writers rely on, but definitely next year.

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