Washington Nationals' outfielder Bryce Harper made his MLB debut on April 28th in LA, but he was seven games into his major league career, facing Philadelphia Phillies' lefty Cole Hamels for the first time in Washington, D.C., when the 2010 no.1 overall pick really arrived as a major leaguer. It was at that point that the 28-year-old Hamels decided to send the Nats' 19-year-old rookie a message. A fastball in the back, just below the numbers. Harper didn't respond. The occasionally hot-headed Harper didn't charge Hamels or even take a threatening step toward the mound. He bent over at the waist for a minute, grimaced in pain and made his way to first base. Harper went first-to-third™ on Jayson Werth's two-out single in the next at bat and then did the unthinkable. He stole home.
First Harper timed Hamels' slow, deliberate move to first, something he'd previously discussed with both Werth and Nationals' third base coach Bo Porter. Then, after seeing it for himself, Harper stole home when Hamels threw over to first again. Harper sprinted fearlessly down the third base line and slid in ahead of a throw from first by Laynce Nix, colliding with Phillies' catcher Carlos Ruiz as Ruiz tried to block the plate. "SAFE!!" home plate ump Andy Fletcher yelled and gestured. HOLY S**T?!? Bryce Harper stole home. Who does that? Not too many teenagers that's for sure. As the Nationals noted in a press release about Harper stealing home on Hamels, "Before tonight, the last swipe of home by a teenager occurred 48 years ago yesterday, on May 5, 1964, when LAA’s Ed Kirkpatrick stole home at KCR."
More impressive perhaps was the fact that Harper was actually prepared for the possibility that the scenario might arise. "I was talking to Jayson [Werth] about it," Davey Johnson told reporters that night. "He talked to [Harper] about [Hamels'] move and after second throw over there, [Harper] was anticipating it and he was gone. And Jayson and him discussed it along with [third base coach] Bo Porter before the game, about [Hamels having] a little slow move to first." It wasn't the last time Harper's preparedness impressed everyone following the rookie in his first major league season.
When the Nationals faced the Phillies again a few weeks later, Harper singled in his first at bat against future Hall of Fame pitcher Roy Halladay, then stepped up for the second time against the 35-year-old, 15-year veteran and tripled on a first-pitch curve that Harper appeared to be see coming. He did see it coming, actually. Harper told reporters, including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, after the game that he had previously noted the right-hander's tendency to throw first-pitch curves while watching Halladay on t.v. over the years and apparently preparing for a future in which he would be facing the two-time Cy Young Award winner:
"'I’ve been watching him for about three years," Harper said Tuesday night. 'He throws first-pitch curveballs to so many people, and they just let it get over the plate. I was just really trying to get something up in that situation and get something going.'"
As the WaPost reporter noted, it wasn't just talk on Harper's part. Nationals' hitting coach Rick Eckstein and Harper had discussed how Halladay might approach him during Spring Training, in a conversation in which Harper had predicted how the Phillies' starter might attack him if and when they eventually faced one another.
Harper posted a .282/.354/.472 line with 15 doubles, four triples and eight HRs in 62 games and 277 PAs in the first half of his rookie campaign and appeared in the All-Star Game as a late addition to the roster after several players bowed out. Over his next 45 games and 194 plate appearances, starting after the All-Star Break through the end of August, Harper struggled, posting a .214/.281/.376 line with three doubles, two triples and seven home runs. Down the stretch, however, as the Nationals locked up their first NL East crown, Harper excelled with a .330/.400/.463 line, eight doubles, three triples and seven home runs in the final 31 games and 126 PAs of the regular season.
The Nationals' rookie outfielder finished the year at +4.9 fWAR, with a .270/.340/.477 line, 26 doubles, nine triples and 22 HRs in 139 games and 597 PAs. "[Harper] came up and he had a really good idea of the strike zone," Davey Johnson told reporters during the Nationals' postseason run which saw Harper go 3 for 23 in five games, with a double, triple and home run in the NLDS loss to St. Louis. "He went through a time [when] he expanded it, but then he made some adjustments back to making them throw the ball over. I think of all the guys the last three weeks of the season, he was as locked in as anybody I had on the ballclub."
The good news. Harper's just getting started. The Nationals will likely have the 20-year-old, second-year pro in left field when they start the 2013 campaign. The baseball world will be watching to see what he's able to do with a full season of at bats. For the second time in just a few years, a once-in-a-generation-type talent and no.1 overall pick somehow managed to live up to the ridiculous hype which accompanied his rise. Harper and fellow Nats' no.1 overall pick, Stephen Strasburg, two of the most covered, analyzed and scrutinized players in baseball will now team up for what is hopefully a full season of both trying to help the Nationals defend their NL East title.