March 2, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #25 Brian Harper

Brian David Harper | C | 1988-1993 | Career Stats

I typically begin these career retrospectives by describing how each player ended up with the Twins, but in Brian Harper's case I'll step aside and let Bill James do the story telling. Here's what James wrote about Harper in The Bill James New Historical Baseball Abstract:

Harper should have had a much better career than he did. He lost a lot of his career to other people's stupidity. He was drafted by the Angels in 1977, hit .293 with 24 homers, 101 RBI at Quad Cities in 1978, then hit .315 with 37 doubles, 90 RBI at El Paso in 1979. The Angels at that time were building entirely around free agents and veterans, in no mood to give a young player a chance. At Salt Lake City in '81 he hit .350 with 45 doubles, 28 homers, 122 RBI. The Angels traded him to Pittsburgh.

The Pirates already had Tony Pena and Steve Nicosia; they needed another catcher like they needed a fifth baseman. Harper tried to convert to the outfield or first base. He wasn't fast enough to play the outfield; nobody was sure he would hit enough to play first. He bounced over to St. Louis, Detroit, Oakland, Minnesota. He was 30 by the time he got a chance to play.

Harper was released by the A's after the 1987 season, at which point he'd hit .233/.258/.362 in 205 major-league games spread over five teams and eight seasons. The Twins signed him in January of 1988 with the intention of making him the regular catcher at Triple-A, but Harper ruined those plans by hitting .353 in 46 games there to all but force the Twins into giving him a shot. He went 9-for-22 (.409) with three doubles in his first six starts and never looked back.

Given a chance to split time behind the plate with Tim Laudner during the final four months of the season Harper hit .295/.344/.428 in 60 games. And just like that, he had himself a full-time gig. Laudner moved to the bench in 1989 and Harper batted .325 while starting 86 times at catcher and another 15 times at designated hitter. That was the first season of a five-year run that saw Harper rank as one of the elite offensive catchers in baseball:

1989     29.3      3rd     Tettleton, Fisk
1990     22.5      4th     Fisk, Daulton, Parrish
1991     29.1      3rd     Tettleton, Biggio
1992     28.7      4th     Daulton, Tettleton, Hoiles
1993     25.6      7th     Piazza, Hoiles, Wilkins, Stanley, Daulton, MacFarlane

*VORP stands for Value Over Replacement Player, which measures offense relative to position.

During that five-year period Harper ranked fourth among all catchers in Runs Created, behind Mickey Tettleton, Craig Biggio, and Darren Daulton. And while the dig on Harper was always that he was awful defensively, several other top-hitting catchers from 1989 to 1993--Tettleton, Chris Hoiles, Mike Stanley--also had iffy gloves. In fact, Tettleton's production is misleading, since about one-third of his action came at DH while Harper only appeared there occasionally.

Harper was arguably the best catcher in the American League from 1989 to 1993, batting .307/.341/.431 to beat the .250/.314/.371 line produced by the average catcher by about 12 percent. He hit at least .300 in all but one season, when he fell all the way to .294 in 1990. As James wrote at the end of the passage I partially quoted above: "He was slow, didn't have real power, didn't walk and didn't throw well, but he could hit .300 in his sleep."

Until I began researching his career, I had the impression that Harper was absolutely dreadful throwing out runners; the Matthew LeCroy of the 1990s. However, the actual numbers don't back that up. From 1988 to 1990 he threw out 35 percent of steal attempts, which was solidly above the league average of 31 percent. For comparison Laudner's career mark with the Twins was a shade under 30 percent, including just 27 percent between 1988 and 1989.

What likely cemented Harper's reputation as a poor thrower was his 22 percent rate in 1991. The season everyone remembers was Harper's worst, and backup Junior Ortiz gunned down 46 percent in limited duty. Plus, the Blue Jays and Braves ran a ton on Harper in the playoffs, going 11-for-14 in 12 games. Harper made up for much of that by going 13-for-39 (.333) with four doubles, but the idea that you could easily run on him stuck for the rest of his career.

In fact, Harper allowed the league's most steals in 1992 (118) and 1993 (114), which certainly didn't help put a stop to the image everyone now had of him as a noodle arm. However, while teams were running on Harper like crazy, he actually threw out a very respectable 31 percent in 1992 and 33 percent in 1993. In other words, Harper certainly had a mediocre arm and at times struggled gunning down runners, but more often than not did just fine.

For me the notion that Harper wasn't an absolute disaster controlling the running game was a revelation and I suspect the same can be said for many Twins fans (and even some non-Twins fans, like James). Doing the actual research rather than just trusting my preconceived ideas changed my opinion of Harper's career in Minnesota significantly and that's part of the fun with this whole "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" series.

At the plate Harper hit .300 in his sleep, but had modest pop with 11 homers per 550 at-bats for the Twins. He also rarely walked or whiffed with 19 non-intentional walks and 29 strikeouts per 600 plate appearances. A half-dozen years after saying goodbye to Harper the Twins had another high-average, low-pop, swing-at-everything catcher in A.J. Pierzynski, but even that comparison short-changes Harper once you adjust his raw numbers to current offensive levels:

With the Twins        G       PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS+
Brian Harper        730     2691     .313     .347     .472      110
A.J. Pierzynski     430     1540     .301     .341     .447      105

Harper was a notch above Pierzynski at the plate during their respective Twins careers, hiting for a higher batting average and more power. Perhaps most importantly when it comes to his place in team history, Harper played 730 games for the Twins, compared to 430 for Pierzynski. And in case you're wondering, Pierzynski threw out 31 percent of stolen-base attempts while with the Twins, which is the exact same rate as Harper.

It's a shame that Harper didn't latch on with the Twins earlier. He consistently produced big numbers in the minors, batting .307 in nearly 900 games before joining the Twins, and given a chance could have basically doubled the big-league career he had. Even still, he ranks as one of the most consistent and underrated players of the early 1990s, was a key part of the World Series title in 1991, and ranks as the second-best (non-active) catcher in team history.

Oh, and Lonnie Smith was out in that picture.

Batting Average      .306     7th
Doubles               156    20th
Adjusted OPS+         110    20th
Hits                  767    23rd
  • Tom

    Finally some love for Brian Harper, and someone to point out that he wasn’t as bad defensively as everyone thought. But the lingering image I’ll always have of him is with Lonnie Smith, shaking hands and wishing each other luck as Smith stepped into the box to begin the final game of an epic World Series (and we had no idea that the greatest epic was yet to come).

  • spookymilk

    I absolutely loved Harper.

    In 1990, my homeroom class (I was 13) took a tour of a mostly-empty Metrodome. Harper was coming down the stairs when about eight of us kids were going up. One kid blurted out, “Who are you? Are you a Twin?” Harper said “Naw, I’m just with the grounds crew.” Most of the kids moved on, but I knew the truth and stayed back. Harper looked back at me as he passed, and he knew I knew who he was. He laughed and gave me a “Shh!” Still my favorite meeting with a Twin.

  • ghost42

    @spookymilk Awesome story.

  • Son of Shane Mack

    Great story!

    He was totally a great guy – not to mention a great hitter.

  • Iconoclast

    Brian Harper was my favorite Twins player when I was a kid. I loved how he always hit the ball. He never walked, but he neve struck out either. I was so angry when they let him go that I stopped being a baseball fan for about four years (the strike didn’t help either).

  • Stupe

    Brian Harper was one of my favorite Twins. Beyond being a good player, he was a nice guy. I spent many summers as a 10-12 year old chasing autographs outside the Metrodome. He ALWAYS had time to sign autographs and chat with us kids around the stadium. As a result, I have close to 70 Brian Harper autograph cards in my garage.

  • Steve J

    Nice to see some analysis on Harper’s caught steeling #s. One other thing: back during this time, it was held that the Twins’ best starting pitcher at holding runners was Scott Erickson. harper rarely, caught Erickson who had his own personal “caddie” when he was playing: lenny webster, Junior Ortiz, etc. not sure why…

  • marietta mouthpiece

    I think part of the notion that Harper was not to be trusted as an everyday player, let alone thought of as an elite player, came from Kelly, at least in the early days of Harper’s Minnesota career. For what seemed like a long time, Kelly would deflect questions about his hesitancy to play Harper everyday by stating that he was an example of a guy that, if given the every day starter role, would quickly “play himself right out of the lineup”. While Kelly was right about a lot of things during his tenure, he was dead wrong about Harper, although I don’t know if he ever openly admitted it.

    Probably part of that was simply due to Kelly being close and loyal to that core group of Twins, of which Laudner was a charter member (and Harper was not).

  • BBOutsider

    Harper’s bad defense rap was largely because he was very poor at receiving pitches. He dropped a lot of balls that hit him in the mitt. Ortiz caught Erickson because Harper simply couldn’t handle Erickson’s sinker.

    On the other hand, when he and Laudner were splitting the job, Laudner caught the guys who didn’t need help (such as Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven), and Harper caught the rookies and projects. Kelly trusted Harper’s pitch calling more.

    All part of why catcher defense is so difficult to quantify.

  • mike wants WINS

    And I still think catcher defense is the most over-rated thing in sports……

    That aside, this is a great illustration of how good to very good players can get continually bypassed by teams because a)they love their veteran presence types, even if they stink b)players get reputations, and they stick, even if they aren’t grounded in facts c) people have this pre-conceived notion of how value is driven by certain positions (catchers should catch, don’t worry about their hitting), rather than judging a player on his actual value contributed.

    Tolbert vs Luke Hughes is going to be a perfect example of that. Tolbert has a reputation (with some) of being a nice glove, no hit guy. I’m not sure he’s that good with the glove, but he can’t hit. Hughes, otoh, has the reputation of being no good with the glove (which he may not be). I don’t know, but a guy gets maybe 1-3 plays a week that an average fielder can’t make, but he gets 20+ at bats a week. I’ll take an average to slightly below average fielder, that outhits his positional peers by a lot, almost every time over a guy that is a marginal fielder and can’t hit (butera being another example).

    Luke Hughes could play about half the time on about half the MLB teams, and be better than the 30 year old utility, below replacement level “veteran presence” guys those teams play. But, baseball is stuck in the 1950s….

  • JB (the original)

    Morneau still out (and IMO, it will be a while if they’re talking about how he can’t go a day or two without post workout headaches still)

  • koop

    Hey AG, great stuff recently, I’m watching from the sidelines. But a quick question, where do you find images or videos from the 91 series (like Lonnie Smith running over Harper above)? I’ve been looking for the Hrbek-Gant leg whip, but I can’t find an image or video anywhere, it’s presumably MLB copyrighted. Is there a special place to go to see or use images like that? Just curious.

  • kenbuddha
  • chris

    Steve Holm???

    Any chances he will make it???

  • db

    Always loved Harper…

    Just think, in today’s market he could have gotten himself a 8-year $184 million contract with the twins for those stats

  • Brian Harper is really a great player.

  • paul

    I saw Harper play a lot, and I never understood the knock on him. Maybe he didn’t kiss TK’s butt.

  • Game

    Brian Harper is on of my favorite twins of all time. When I was a kid, I modeled my swing after his, and I always tried to get number 12.

    He was originally the personal catcher for Allen Anderson. Then slowly he began to play himself into a bigger role. I

    I don’t think he was ever one of TK’s guys, and when he left, I seem to remember there being some bad blood.

  • played with brian’s brother in the minor leagues with the n.y.mets 1973-1976 he was are bat boy in1973 rookie ball he had a nice career and that is the bad thing about professional baseball keeps a lot of good players out of the big leagues that is why some players do very well when they get out of bad organizations the twins had four players that i know of who did very well for themselves after they traded them jeff reardon,eddie guardado, jason bartlett who went on to be an all-star the year after they traded him the other one i forgot is juan berenguer one of my favorite players that i played with won 2 world series rings 1984 detroit tigers 1988 minnesota twins and would have won a 3rd one but traded from the atlanta braves to the kansas city royals in 1992

  • Sharon petrie

    Had the privelege of hearing Brian Anderson speak to Christian Youth groups in Mesa in early 90’s. His testimony of coming back after elbow injury is something that should be publicized for more to hear.

    • Bob Laughlin

      Dear SLP: Do you happen to recall WHEN Harper had the elbow injury. I’m researching ballplayers from the late 70s to early 90s. Have seen reference to BH injuring his arm but can’t find any specifics. Exact year would be great. Minors or majors? The team he was with at the time could pin it down. Sincere thanks if you recall.