Let's make one thing clear. The National League MVP race is nuts right now. There are 5-6 legitimate candidates and I find it difficult to imagine there will be a consensus pick come the end of September. But what people seem to forget is that had Bryce Harper not gotten hurt in August, we would be rewarding the 24-year-old with his second MVP trophy in three years. A lot of people tried to say that his down year from a season ago was proof he's overrated, but he rebounded so strongly when healthy this year that his slump was likely just due to injury.
Let's break this down. In 2015's unanimous MVP selection, Harper blasted 42 homers to go along with a .330/.460/.649 triple slash line. That's outrageous, but you want to know what's even crazier? He started even hotter the very next season. In the first 18 games of 2016 Harper hit 9 home runs to go along with 23 RBIs and a .323/.405/.855 (!!!!!!) triple slash line. He was the baseball equivalent of Super Mario getting the invincibility star. That was good for a 212 wRC+, which means that during this stretch Bryce was 112% better than replacement level LMFAO.
Anyways, the rest of 2016 was weird. There was that Cubs series in May where Joe Maddon went outrageously out of his way to pitch around Harper. He continued to play at a superstar level for a while though, and then all of a sudden the production just....stopped. Out of the blue. In the second half of 2016 Harper hit just .226/.336/.373 with 5 homers. Wtf? Was it a slump? Maybe, but he was also due for regression after performing so well for so long. It would've been hard to keep up that 212 wRC+.
Still though, he shouldn't have regressed that badly, should he have? The answer is no, because Bryce Harper is good. Instead, a likelier explanation of what happened was that he got hurt. For whatever reason Harper and the Nationals tried to sweep this injury under the rug, aggressively denying that he was playing through a shoulder injury. I guess this mean it's possible he wasn't actually hurt, but the timing of when the injury was supposedly sustained, and when the gigantic slump began, seem to coincidental.
And what would you know? Harper had time to recover from the injury this off-season, and he immediately started raking again in 2017. He homered on Opening Day (once again) and was slashing .326/.419/.614 before his August injury. These numbers aren't technically as high as his 2015 triple slash line, but they are damn close. If Harper was the UNANIMOUS MVP that year, it's conceivable to think he would have won the award again with similar numbers. It also wouldn't have hurt that the Nationals are one of the best teams in baseball this year.
Harper is back tonight, on September 26th, with just a few games left in the regular season. The Nationals will take whatever contributions they can get from their superstar outfielder come October, but it's going to be tough for him. By the time NLDS game one rolls around he will have seen less than a week's worth of MLB pitching to prepare. Assuming the Cubs win the NL Central, Harper's first post-season at bat will come against Jon Lester. Or Jake Arrieta. Then he'll have to face Kyle Hendricks or Jose Quintana before (likely) dealing with Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers should Washington advance to the NLCS. I think it's fair to lower expectations for him this October.
Ultimately though, the main lesson here is the haters and losers (of which there were many) were wrong about him. They tried to say he was overrated because of 2016, but his outstanding play this year implies that was indeed hurt during his slump. Over the past three years he has been exceptional, and the only time he wasn't was when there were rumors of him being hurt. Bryce is back, and he's going to be extra motivated next year, his last season before potentially singing the largest contract in the history of professional sports.