Cocky... Disappointment... Bust.... Overrated. These are words that you usually don't expect to hear about a player who has a career .272/.351/.465 line with a .355 wOBA, a 125 wRC+, and 10 fWAR at the age of 22! When we're talking about Bryce Harper, though, these are the words that the rest of baseball likes to use.
The hype train left the station on the 2010 first overall pick long before he was drafted. In January of 2009, Harper hit several home runs onto the catwalk at Tropicana Field in a home run derby, including the longest home run ever recorded there (502 feet). He was sixteen years old. Six months later, still only sixteen, Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was showered with comps to phenoms from other sports, such as Lebron James. Three weeks later, Harper announced that he planned to earn his GED rather than attend his final two years of high school so that he could enroll in community college and enter the draft a year early.
The hype that has always surrounded Harper made it seem like he was going to be elected into Cooperstown the day after he signed with the Washington Nationals. While Harper is as talented a young player as just about anyone in the game today, that's an awful lot of pressure to put on a kid who was just 17 at the time he was drafted. If Harper's peers want to call him overrated, it has as much to do with everyone having expectations that would be unreasonable for Babe Ruth as anything else. Does failing to live up to expectations that were clearly ridiculous really make Harper overrated?
Of course, Harper's personality is something that fans (and players) in other cities don't often tend to appreciate. He does tend to come off as a bit brash. He once blew a kiss to a pitcher who had been taunting him after hitting a home run in the minor leagues. He's also a bit flamboyant on the field. This is one of the first images that many of us remember about Harper in the big leagues:
If you listen closely, you can hear pro sports' greatest living announcer say that Harper goes into second base standing "running out from under his cap." That's certainly not what happened, though... He clearly brushes his helmet off intentionally as he's running to second base. Does it matter? No.... But the unwritten rules police don't have a tendency to like those types of things so much. I guess they don't like things like this much either.....
There are far worse examples of players watching their home runs and staring down pitchers. If you don't believe me, watch David Ortiz hit a home run some time... or Justin Upton... For crying out loud, look at this nonsense!
That was what would end up being a series winning home run by a player who plays in front of the fanbase that supposedly prides themselves on being the protectors of baseball's unwritten rules. If Yasiel Puig (or Harper) had hit that home run, thrown both hands up in the air, and taken three giant skips around the bag at first base, Cardinals fans would still be crying about how he's a "punk" and "doesn't respect the game." Since Matt Adams did it, they bragged about what a fun moment it was.
To be clear, I'm not saying that any of the players I talk about above don't respect the game. It's a game. If you hit a big home run in a big moment, enjoy it! Celebrate it! I'm just using them as examples because even the groups that are most critical of Harper for instances like his homer off of Hunter Strickland have players that they cheer for that do the same thing.... and even take it a step further.
I don't know whether you want to call this professionalism or not, since I've always thought that Harper is professional and seems mature (again) for a 22 year old. However, he often comes off sounding like a bit of a surfer dude in postgame interviews. This video became a pretty popular internet meme after he responded (as a 19 year old... and a Mormon) to a Canadian reporter who asked him whether he was going to celebrate a home run in Toronto by having a beer after the game. Harper was absolutely right not to answer the reporter's question (it was asinine), but the phrasing that he used invited more criticism from the aforementioned unwritten rules police.
I brought up Lebron James earlier when I mentioned that Sports Illustrated compared Harper to phenoms from other sports. However, I'm going to use one of my favorite players (of yore) from a different sport entirely to describe how Harper is viewed throughout the league. Those who follow hockey (and are older than... 25?) probably remember Claude Lemieux.
Claude was the guy you loved to hate... unless he was on your team. Having grown up a Devils fan, Claude was one of my favorites. He was pesky. He usually wasn't afraid to throw down if an opponent challenged him. Most importantly, he was extremely talented. He wasn't Gretzky or (not related) Mario Lemieux, but he was a nice 55-60 point a year guy with grit who had an innate ability to really heat up come playoff time. He won four Stanely Cups with three different teams in his career, and won the Conn Smythe trophy as he led the Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1994-95.
Still, when we look back at Claude's career, he's probably best known for a series of incidents against the Detroit Red Wings. In the playoffs in 1996, Lemieux checked Detroit's Kris Draper into the boards from behind. Late in the following season, Red Wings enforcer Darren McCarty went after Lemieux... and Lemieux turtled. The next season, the two actually had a real fight right after the puck dropped.
Anyway, let's get back on topic. Claude was the guy that you loved to hate unless he played for your team. Harper may not have the "goon" reputation that Lemieux did around the NHL, but he is a player that most other fanbases will continue to hate. They mainly dislike him because of all the media attention he gets... and the fact that they don't always put him in the most positive light.
At any rate, that's enough about the hate. Let's talk about why Harper will shut the haters up in 2015......
He'll stay healthy
This is the most important aspect of Harper moving beyond being the really good player that he has been the past three seasons and becoming the superstar that he's been portrayed as. As a rookie in 2012, Harper was outstanding. He hit .270/.340/.477 with 22 HR and 18 SB on his way to deservedly winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. The next season, he was outstanding for a 20-year-old (.274/.368/.486) as he improved his patience a bit, had a slightly better ISO, and hit 20 HR for the second straight season to begin his career... despite missing over a month after running into a wall. Alas, 2014 wasn't as kind to Bryce...
Harper began the season a bit slowly with his power, swatting just one home run in April despite starting fairly strong with his batting average and OBP. Unfortunately, he tore his UCL in his thumb in late April and went on to miss the next two months. Players with thumb (or any hand) injuries don't always see their power return immediately when they come back. This was certainly the case for Harper, who struggled for about a month when he returned to the lineup in July. He went on to hit just .228/.330/.342 that month with 3 doubles and 2 homers in 92 plate appearances. After July, he seemed to put his recovery behind him and looked like Bryce Harper again.
Harper would go on to bat .283/.341/.460 with 10 HR over the final two months. When the postseason came around, Harper was one of just two Nats players who seemed to bring their bat along with them in October. He hit .294/.368/.882 in the four game loss to the Giants, swatting three of the club's four home runs and four of their six extra base hits. Are we looking at small samples here? Sure. Do those small samples seem to indicate that the thumb injury may have still bothered him a bit when he came back last season? Statistically, yep. Did it look like he put those troubles behind him and that they shouldn't be an issue heading into 2015? Absofreakinlutely!
There's nothing that I can point to that says that Bryce Harper will stay healthy in 2015. Random injuries happen all the time. It's just a hunch. If he does stay healthy, look out!
Harper loves the spotlight
I hate using a bunch of things that I can't really quantify. Those of you who have been regular readers at Federal Baseball for a while are well aware that I don't believe that "clutch" exists. I believe that a good hitter (or pitcher) performs well in so-called clutch situations because he is a good player, not because he's stepping to the plate in a crucial situation. I will concede that there are players who freeze up a bit in those situations and let the moment get to them. This can make some players worse in "clutch" situations. However, I don't think that there is really a skill that will suddenly turn a .250 hitter into a .350 hitter because there are baserunners on in front of them... or because the bright lights of October are suddenly shining.
That said, Harper has shown a pretty strong level of comfort when the spotlight is on him. Based on all of the hype that surrounded Harper even before he was drafted, that spotlight has been shining on him for his entire career. He's never really shown any indication that it gets to him, and has actually appeared to embrace it. With the lofty expectations for the 2015 Nats and the recent vote where his peers named Harper MLB's most overrated player, it will be shining on him even more brightly than ever. While I feel that Harper is smart enough so that he'll never actually say it, he'll take those comments about being the most overrated player in the league personally.
Better Batting Order real estate
Those of you who read me regularly at Federal Baseball probably realize that while I like spouting off some statistics, I very rarely use RBI. This is because I feel that RBI is a statistic that is largely team dependent and often isn't particularly relevant to an individual player's talent level. I'm certainly not alone in thinking that a player's RBI total is an outdated and overrated statistic, but I do feel that I'm still in the minority. The majority (those people who think RBI are more meaningful than I do) would probably like to point to Harper's RBI totals as one of the reasons that he's overrated. In three big league seasons, he's never driven in more than 59 runs, so he must not be that good, right?
That's likely to change this season. Indications this March have been that Harper, who batted primarily in the sixth spot last season, will be moving up to the third spot in the order. This will place him in a spot where he figures to see a lot more RBI opportunities and will have a better hitter batting behind him (yuck... lineup protection, too, Jim?). This will hopefully mean that pitchers attack him more because of the threat that Ryan Zimmerman... or Jayson Werth... or Ian Desmond presents behind him. While I don't feel that RBI is that important of a statistic to look at, it's a stat that appeases the masses. If he drives in 100 runs, we'll stop hearing this "overrated" nonsense.
So many injuries.......
The Nats will enter the 2015 campaign as the odds on favorites to win the NL East (OK... maybe a bit more than just the NL East), but they're going to begin the year with a depleted lineup. It seems like Anthony Rendon will miss most of April. Denard Span may miss most of the first two months of the season. Jayson Werth seems to be headed to the disabled list to start the year. I'm not going to ignore Desmond, Zimmerman, or Wilson Ramos. Bryce Harper isn't going to be the only hitter that's capable of doing some damage while they wait for three of their starters to return. However, he's going to be asked to carry the offense a bit more early in 2015 than he ever has before.
As I mentioned above, this is a situation that Harper has encountered in the past where he hasn't only looked comfortable, but has thrived. I brought up the other day that the Nats pitching is what will actually help them overcome all of these offensive injuries, but (when they do) the perception is going to be that the player(s) who is/are carrying the offense will be largely responsible as well.
Spring stats, blah, blah, blah
I don't put much into Spring Training statistics. I like to see that a player looks healthy and ready for the season. This March, Harper has pretty much looked like the guy who almost gave himself a hernia trying to carry the Nats offense through the NLDS last season. He's hit .275/.453/.550 with a couple of doubles, three homers, and he's walked more often (13) than he's struck out (11). He looks healthy and ready to mash.... sadly, unlike many of the other players on the Nats.
2015 will be Bryce Harper's year!
Harper will put this offense on his back in April. He'll ride the hot start to an amazing season, actually showing further improvement when Span, Rendon, and Werth are back in the lineup around him. He will be the best hitter on the best team in the National League... and win the 2015 NL MVP award.