"RAAAAR! I HITZ IT OWT!!" (Not an actual quote.)
As the 2012 First Year Player Draft comes nigh, let's take a look at the big-league performance of 2010's top draft pick: Washington Nationals' teenage phenom Bryce Harper. After an injury-slowed Spring Training, Harp started the year in the minors. In 20 games and 82 PA at AAA Syracuse, the #1 pick put a respectable (but not overpowering) .250/.333/.375 batting line with 1 HR and 1 SB--good for a 101 wRC+ at the level (after putting up a 103 wRC+ in 37 games at AA last year). He seemed destined for a lengthy stay to "master the level," leaving us all hoping to see him before the AS break, maybe. However, the injury bug that has plagued the Nats all year led to an early callup, and The Bryce has 32 games and 137 PA under his belt in the bigs. That's just enough playing time to start getting out of the small-sample-size universal skepticism at his results--and what results they are!
Let's start with his basic hitting line. So far Harper has put up a triple slash of .288/.380/.542, with 5 HRs and 4 triples (tied for 4th in the NL). The average NL rookie is hitting .242/.294/.375--heck, the average NL player is only hitting .252/.318/.396! If you look at the normalized, park-adjusted stats for overall offensive production, the NL-average rookie has an 80 wRC+, the NL-average player is at 93, and Harper is cruising along at 147! He's providing over 50% more offense than the average NL player, and close to twice as much as the average rookie. This is a 19-year-old on his first trip into the majors. He's even good compared to the average corner-outfield slugger: NL-average RFs have a 109 wRC+ so far this season, and LFs are at 104.
Some commentators (and commenters here) have noted Bryce's "maturity" at the plate. What does that mean? Well, rookies usually like to hack. For instance, the average rookie strikes out 20.9% of the time and walks 6.3% of the time--NL average is 20.0% Ks and 8.3% walks. Harper has walked in 12.4% of his PA and struck out in only 15.3% of them. He's nearly twice as patient at the average rookie, and walks more and strikes out less than the average veteran! That's playing like a grown-up: if a pitcher won't throw you a strike, take your base! As a side note, he's seeing an average of 3.96 pitches per plate appearance, patiently above the 3.80 league average.
This also isn't an issue of pitchers challenging him with fastballs to see if he can hit them, and only later moving on to see how he handles offspeed stuff. The average rookie has seen a fastball 56.9% of the time this season, compared to 54.2% for the league overall. Harper gets a heater only 44.4% of the time. Pitchers are already pitching him carefully. Only 38.9% of pitches he sees are in the zone. A league-average hitter sees 42.9% strikes, while the average rookie gets 45.6% in the zone! As his high walk rate and pitches/PA stats from above hint, so far he's not chasing.
Okay, fine, so far he's mashing. Is it luck? Sunday's line-drive HR into the upper deck certainly argues that the power is for real! So far this season he's had a .312 BAbip, which is above the league-average of .295. That argues he might be a bit lucky, since he had a .295ish BAbip in the high minors (and a .400ish one in AFL and low A). However, his "expected" BAbip, based on his batted-ball profile, is .329! He might actually have been slightly unlucky so far. About that batted-ball profile: Harper has 22.7% line drives (NL average is only 20.6%) and 13.2% of his fly balls are HRs (average is 10.6%). The kid hits deh bawl hahd. Also note that his above-average HR/FB rate comes with an above-average rate of FBs (39.2% vs 33.3%)--a recipe for moar d!ngerz.
Next, let's take a look his fielding-independent offense. Based purely on walks, Ks, HRs, and steals, Harper has a 132 FIO, a good bit off his 147 wRC+. Of course, if you plug in his expected .329 BAbip, that climbs to 139--still excellent for a rookie, although less outstanding. FIO only accounts for speed via SB, which may underrate his aggressiveness on the basepaths (yes, I remember him getting thrown out at 3rd on Sunday, but his non-SB/CS baserunning is still 1.3 runs above average).
And speaking of fielding, so far Bryce has put up a fairly shaky 3 errors in 71 chances over 284 innings spread over all 3 OF spots (.958 FP). The notoriously-SSS-prone advanced stats aren't enthusiastic, either, with UZR at 5.7 runs below average, 3 runs below average by DRS, but 1 run above average by TZR. That's nothing next to Teh H4rp's mighty bat, though, and he's recording 0.8 Wins Above Replacement so far this season. That's the 3rd highest among NL rookies, and he's played 20 fewer games than the two rookies ahead of him (Cozart and Nieuwenhuis).
Bryce Harper is ripping it up. He has speed, power, and patience. His success at the plate is not due to luck, and is in spite of pitchers being much more careful than with an average rookie. His fielding has not been stellar so far, but his overall value so far has to put him in for legitimate Rookie of the Year consideration.
I personally had projected Harper to be roughly league average this season. I'm happy to be wrong.