Bryce Harper and Justin Upton will face each other again starting on Monday, this time in Atlanta, and Harper hopes that his team has a much better result than the three-game sweep they were handed in DC just a couple weeks ago. Since then, the comparisons between the two players have become even more frequent as neither have shown signs of their performance slowing down. But when you look at all the numbers, who has been better? Let’s take a quantitative look at the numbers and try to come away with an unbiased comparison.
Upton has been simply mashing with 12 home runs early in the season. Harper has nine, which is nothing to scoff at, but Upton’s 12 blasts through 24 games is truly remarkable. Isolated power isn’t predictive of anything at this point, but it shows a small sample size snapshot of how much they’ve hit for extra bases in limited at-bats. League average ISO is about .145 over a full season, and Upton has a career .207 ISO to Harper’s .234 ISO, both well above average. Early this year, Upton sports a .477 ISO to Harper’s .410. Upton takes a small edge with wins above replacement, too. He leads all of baseball with 2.0 WAR, while Harper is third with 1.7 WAR.
As far as the most important stats go, Upton’s prominence ends there. In a host of other categories, Harper has better numbers, some far more impressive than others. Here’s a rundown of those stats.
Batting Average (AVG): Harper - .360; Upton - .307
On-Base Percentage (OBP): Harper - .444; Upton - .398
On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS): Harper - 1.200; Upton - 1.171
Strikeout Rate (K%): Harper - 15.2%; Upton - 25.2%
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA): Harper - .503; Upton - .484
Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+): Harper - 231; Upton - 217
The two numbers that are worthy of the most attention in my eyes are OBP and K%, and the stats are closely related. Harper strikes out nearly half as many times as Upton does despite walking at about the same rate (13.1% for Harper, 12.6% for Upton). Harper just makes far more contact than Upton, as evidenced by a batting average more than 50-points higher combined with the much lower strikeout rate. It is worthwhile to point out Harper's better numbers in terms of wOBA and wRC+ as advanced stat examples, but they're not as impressive as his margins in OBP and strikeout rate.
To be clear, both of these guys are having remarkable starts to the season. The point of this article isn’t to show that Upton has some huge weakness; his numbers are impressive, but the comparisons speak for themselves. Harper blows Upton away in several key categories, including batting average, OBP, and K%.
Upton’s advantage in home runs is impressive this early in the year, but home runs are just one of many statistics. His advantage in isolated power is over such a small sample size it probably doesn’t tell us anything for either player. The fact that Upton’s amassed 2.0 WAR in 24 games is remarkable, but Harper isn’t far enough behind that you can say, in good conscience, that he’s blown him away.
It is so early in the season, that these numbers can, and will, fluctuate significantly over the coming weeks. For example, when I wrote the first draft of this post, Harper led Upton by more than 70-points in OPS. Now, he leads by just 29-points. This is an early season comparison for a snapshot in time, not predicting what may happen by September.
Both Bryce Harper and Justin Upton have posted phenomenal April numbers that trounce just about everyone in baseball, and they’ve had profound effects on their teams’ performances. But by the numbers, except for one or two categories, Harper’s early overall performance has been more impressive than Upton’s.