Why it's OK if Bryce Harper struggles
April, 30, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Harry How/Getty ImagesBryce Harper's long-term future can't be decided in the first few weeks of his pro career.To much fanfare and with exceedingly high expectations, the Washington Nationals called up Bryce Harper over the weekend. He went 2-for-6 with a double, a walk, a strikeout and a sac fly, although the Nationals lost both games. In his first game, he hustled to first base on a comebacker to the mound in his first at-bat, doubled and flipped his helmet in the seventh inning, unleashed a great throw from left field, put the Nationals ahead with a sacrifice fly in the ninth, and made a nice catch while crashing into the wall in center field in his second game.
Nothing wrong with that start, which began with Dodgers fans giving him a loud chorus of boos. Already the villain, it seems, which is certainly unfair to a 19-year-old kid. While the Nationals were desperate for some offense -- running out past-their-prime veterans like Xavier Nady and Mark DeRosa probably wasn't a good plan to begin with -- a rash of injuries forced the front office to call up Harper sooner than they probably wanted. As former Mets general manager Jim Duquette said on MLB Network Radio, you want guys to earn their promotion. Harper has just 534 plate appearances in the minor leagues, which isn't necessarily the issue; Ken Griffey Jr. had just 552 when he debuted with the Mariners at 19. The issue is Harper hasn't hit much in his limited exposure above Class A, especially against left-handers. The fear, it can be argued, is that if he struggles in the major leagues, it will harm his development.
I don't see it. If the kid is this good, I don't see a bad stretch doing irreparable harm to his long-term future. If Harper doesn't turn into a big star, it won't be because he was called up too soon.
An obvious comparison is Alex Rodriguez. He was first called up in July of 1994, a few weeks before his 19th birthday. A-Rod played 17 games, had 59 plate appearances, hit .204 and struck out 20 times while drawing just three walks. The next season, he spent more time in the majors and hit .232/.264/.408 with an awful 42/6 strikeout/walk ratio. Despite those two periods where major league pitchers destroyed him, his confidence and talent won out. In 1996, still just 20 years old at the start of the season, Rodriguez hit .358 with 36 home runs.
Now, it's unfair to compare Harper to Rodriguez, of course. So here's another one: Jim Thome had just turned 21 when called up in 1991. He hit .255/.298/.367 with one home run in 27 games that September. He struggled again the next year, hitting .205 with two home runs in 131 plate appearances. He ended up spending most of 1993 in the minors as well. He turned out OK.
It's probably unfair to even compare Harper to Thome, only one of the best power/on-base machines in the game's history. Harper is a better athlete than Thome, but his raw power is similar. OK, how about Justin Upton? He was still 19 when he made his debut in 2007. He hit .221/.283/.364 with 11 walks and 37 strikeouts in 152 plate appearances that season. It would seem to me that Upton is a good comp, a guy who showed steady development and turned into an MVP candidate in his age-23 season.
There are hopes that Harper will be even better than that. His destiny remains unknown. I just don't believe a few bad weeks -- if that's what happens -- will affect his ultimate path.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.