Watching Bryce Harper
There is a quality of myth and legend to Bryce Harper thatis unique in this era. With social media, the internet, and smart phones it is hard to keep anything secret, but out in the deserts of Nevada that is what happened with the teenage Bryce Harper. Stories would trickle into our modern conscience of the 12 year old that was already drawing major league scouts, of the High School kid that hit a 600 foot (or was it only a 500 foot) homerun. That homerun he hit in High School is the perfect example of the myth of Bryce Harper. There is no actual video of the homerun, but there is a video of Harper and ESPN's Rachael Nichols walking through the desert, standing at a spot, and saying, “Pretty much right here.”
At the age of 16 Harper was on the cover of Sport Illustrated being heralded as the LeBron James of baseball. Harper was so skilled at baseball, High School became a waste of time. He got his GED and went off to a junior college so he could be drafted a year early, and there he again demoralized older competition. Once drafted and signed Harper came to Nats Park and took batting practice. It was rumored that he hit a ball off of the facing of the third deck at Nationals Park and several more up onto the scoreboard walk. The fact that there is a black mark on the facing of the third deck gives this story its credence, but does nothing to remove the tall tale aspect of it.
But how to describe what it is like to watch Bryce Harper, and how all these tales with mythic quality did nothing to prepare us for what we witnessed in 2012. When Bryce Harper was called up to the majors he was hitting a pedestrian .243/.325/.365 in AAA after hitting only .256/.329/.395 in AA. The fact that Harper was 19 and in the upper minors was impressive even if his stats were not, but nothing about how he was playing said he was ready for the majors. Nationals’ manager Davey Johnson decided to add to the myth of Harper by proclaiming that the poor minor league numbers came from the fact that Harper was bored. That he was too talented for the minors and thus was like the gifted kid who becomes the class clown because the school work is too easy.
Harper did indeed find his groove in the majors and by the time the year was out he had a batting line of .270/.340/.477 which along with his 8 outfield assist and 18 stolen bases was enough to win him the Rookie of the Year. The stats only tell part of the story of Bryce Harper, and again we run into the issue of myth making. Harper plays baseball and competes at such a level it is hard to describe without resorting to the cliché of, “You had to have been there.” In some ways that is the only way to describe it. If someone has never witnessed Bryce Harper, describing his exploits becomes difficult. It is impressive enough that he is one of the best 19 year olds to have played the game, but it is those flashes of his potential that made him so exciting.
Let’s not couch this at all. Harper’s ceiling is that of an all-time great. His ceiling is among the stars and constellations of baseball’s greats. If Harper fully realizes his potential his name will be mentioned alongside Aaron, Mays, Ruth, and Pujols as one of the best to have ever played. With what he did as a 19 year old, he has put his name among such baseball legacies as Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, and Ty Cobb as one of the best teenagers to have played at the MLB level, but his future holds so much more. Describing it is an issue. Harper had 22 homeruns, the third most by a 19 year old, but it isn’t the fact that he hit the homers that is impressive. It is the fact that the average distance of a Bryce Harper homerun was 410.1 feet and the average speed off the bat was 105.9 MPH. When Bryce Harper hit a homerun it went a long way and did so quickly. Compare that to fellow lefty and well known masher Josh Hamilton whose average homerun distance in 2012 was 413 feet and average speed off the bat 105.9 MPH, or Adam Dunn at 411.2 feet and 105.9 MPH. Bryce Harper at the age of 19 hit baseballs the near the same distance as Josh Hamilton and Adam Dunn and with the same velocity. Want to be even more impressed? Giancarlo Stanton’s average homerun distance was 409.3. At 19 Bryce Harper was hitting baseballs as hard and as far as the best sluggers in the game.
Power is only part of what made Harper’s 2012 season great. Take for instance the well known hustle double off of Jason Heyward where he sauntered in to collect a base hit expecting Harper to stop at first, and then was shocked to see Harper racing on toward second. That alone has no mythic quality to it, but there are those who claim that moment helped to inspire Heyward to work harder and turn his season around. That is how myths are born. Bryce Harper is so good at baseball that he doesn’t simply elevate his own teammates he inspires those in the game to play that much better in order to beat him. The one part that is true is that when Harper is on the field opposing players always have to pay attention. If there was even a hint that Harper could advance an extra base he would. A number of times he would go from first to third on balls it looked like he had no chance to make it on, and a number of times not only would he make it to the base he desired, but he would make it further than that as his aggressive actions forced the defense into hurried and off balance throws.
The best way to describe Bryce Harper is not through his power or his stats, but from his base running. In 2012 Harper hit nine triples and very few of those should have been triples. Harper would hit a ball into the gap that looked like a standard double, but he would explode out of the box and never even consider stopping at second. The fielder would field the ball in their standard manner and fans would look at the bases expecting to see Harper stopping at second, but he wouldn’t. Harper would blaze through second base on his way to third, often times after the ball had been fielded. The first thought would be to question why Harper was even attempting such an unwise action, then to hope he could make it as the ball was unleashed on its flight to the third baseman. Now Harper was trying to out run a baseball. Then what started as a question of Harper’s intelligence became a realization that he had a chance to make it, and from there amazement at not only him making it to third, but doing so well ahead of the throw and often times standing up. That is the description of what it is like to watch Bryce Harper play baseball. He makes an action that is questioned because no person can possibly do what he is attempting, and then not only does he do it, but makes it look routine.
The one thing above all others at the center of any tale of Bryce Harper is how he defies expectations. A 15 year old can’t hit a baseball 500 feet, a 16 year old can’t play at the junior college level, a 17 year old can’t be drafted, and a 19 year old can’t play at Rookie of the Year level in the majors. At every step along the way he has defied expectations. Now as Opening Day approaches, the expectation for him in 2013 is that he takes a step back. That his numbers can’t possibly be as good in 2013 as they were in 2012 because the league is going to adjust and he is going to suffer through a sophomore slump. No projection has Harper taking a significant step forward and several have him taking a step back. This is the expectation for Harper. That he will be like most other players and his 2013 numbers will not be as good as his 2012 numbers, but if Spring Training is a prelude to anything, it is that Harper is once again going to prove he is not most other players.
The issue with Spring Training stats is that they are both a small sample size and not always against major league talent, and even when they are against major league talent that talent isn’t always trying to get outs. Many major league pitchers use Spring Training to work on issues in their game. For example a pitcher that has trouble locating pitches on the inside to lefties may spend an entire game throwing inside to lefties. Even still Baseball Reference has a new tool that measures the strength of competition a player has faced in Spring Training. It is a scale of 1-10 with 10 being MLB level, 8 AAA, 7 AA, and on down from there. Harper’s strength of competition is rated at a 9.1 meaning that he has faced mostly major league talent with some AAA sprinkled in and because of that his .431/.459/.707 batting line carries slightly more weight. Even still it has come in 61 plate appearances or the equivalent of about 15 games.
Harper’s Spring Training has essentially been a good couple weeks of baseball, and it isn’t like Harper hasn’t played at this level before. In the final month of the 2012 season Harper batted .330/.400/.643. It was by far his best month, and combined with this Spring Training perhaps what we are seeing is that baseball isn’t adjusting to Bryce Harper, but that Bryce Harper is adjusting to baseball. Bryce Harper has never done what is expected of him. He treats expectations like insults to be ignored and brushed off. Harper wasn’t supposed to be able to play on his older brother’s little league teams, he wasn’t supposed to hit .318/.423/.554 at 18 in Hagerstown, and he wasn’t supposed to be better than Mike Trout at the age of 19. Harper accomplished all of this even as many said he couldn’t and to understand why is simple. There is a ferocity to the way Bryce Harper plays baseball and to fully understand one needs only watch Bryce Harper play baseball.