Imagine being universally despised by millions of people who have never met you -- millions of people hoping for your failure. Imagine the future of a franchise, one that finished in fourth or fifth place in its division in eight consecutive seasons and that has not reached the postseason since 1981, resting squarely on your shoulders. Imagine history screaming in your face that you will not succeed.
That is Bryce Harper's world.
The 19-year-old was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, selected by the Washington Nationals, a consolation prize for being baseball’s perennial cellar-dweller. Harper and starter Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ first overall pick in the 2009 draft, represent the future of a franchise seemingly always in turmoil.
It is rare nowadays for players to hit the majors before their 20th birthday. Harper was only the fifth position player in the 2000s to take a plate appearance at the MLB level before the age of 20, joining Mike Trout, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Wilson Betemit. Successful under-20 players are even more scarce. Since 1950, only four players have had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and only one posted an above-average OPS+: Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989 at 108. The others were Robin Yount in 1975 (90 OPS+), Rusty Staub in 1963 (84) and Al Kaline in 1954 (80).
Harper made his big league debut April 28 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and wasted no time getting his first hit and his first RBI. He has quickly become a mainstay in the Nationals’ lineup, providing every tool the scouts said he would: hitting for average, hitting for power, showing speed on the bases, showing a great outfield arm and contributing plus defense. Entering Tuesday night's game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Harper brought with him a .908 OPS. Not exactly an MVP-caliber number, but among outfielders, it places him between Adam Jones (.913) and Jay Bruce (.874), both presumptive All-Stars.
Then, in the third inning Tuesday, Harper hit his seventh home run of the season, against Jays starter Henderson Alvarez. He added two singles, bringing his average up to .307 on the season. Since 1950, only 11 rookies who qualified for the batting title have finished with an average better than .300. The only ones to do it in the 2000s are Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols in 2001, and Starlin Castro in 2010. Harper also is on pace for 19 home runs. If accomplished, he would become only the fifth player to hit at least 19 home runs in a single season before his 21st birthday, joining Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews and Willie Mays. Any way you slice it, Harper is in rarefied air, as they say.
Despite so much working against him -- history, the pressure of being a franchise player and the knee-jerk fan reaction to his bravado -- Harper has persevered through it all, enjoying immense success. He was the presumptive National League rookie of the year entering the season and remains such through June 12, which is a big reason the Nationals are 14 games over .500 and four games ahead of the second-place Atlanta Braves.
If Harper can keep up his torrid pace, he can not only make history for himself but end the Nationals’ long-standing playoff drought dating back to 1981, when the Montreal Expos lost the NL Championship Series in five games to the Dodgers. Such a feat would validate the Nationals’ vision for their future since opening a new ballpark in 2008 and since Mike Rizzo took over as general manager in 2009. Harper is undeniably a great story in baseball, and you can’t help but feel good for the Nationals, baseball’s lovable losers. Soon, they’ll be former lovable losers.
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