Bryce Harper facing growing pains
Injuries and inconsistent play continue to plague Nationals' 21-year-old slugger
Baseball insiders with a glass-half-full orientation can still envision a day when the light bulb clicks for Bryce Harper and he refrains from inflicting bodily harm upon himself and takes his game to a different level. He'll graduate from the sixth hole to the No. 3 spot in the lineup, hit 35-40 homers with a .550 slugging percentage and fulfill the expectations accorded him in 2010, when he dripped eye black, oozed potential and made both maple- and aluminum-bat magic at the College of Southern Nevada.
Until that dream-worthy scenario transpires, Harper reigns supreme as the most polarizing .269 hitter in baseball.
Harper has lived through some noteworthy moments this year -- many of which can be filed under "growing pains" -- but the most intriguing demarcation line came on April 21. The Washington Nationals played the Los Angeles Angels at home, and it marked the first time Harper had shared a playing field with Mike Trout since they were Arizona Fall League teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in 2011. They arrived in the big leagues in tandem on April 28, 2012, and the Mays-Mantle comparisons began, because this is what we love to do.
While Trout is second in the majors with a 6.3 WAR and once again in the MVP discussion after two straight runner-up finishes to Miguel Cabrera, Harper is trying to put a happy face on a season that can charitably be described as a learning experience. He has landed in the middle of a couple of mini-controversies around a lengthy visit to the disabled list, and now he's trying to contribute to a contender as more a complementary piece than a main cog.
A younger, more callow and cockier Harper wouldn't have yielded an inch in comparing himself to another player. But he's realistic enough to know where he stands in the pecking order.
"Mike Trout is the best player in baseball," Harper said, "and I don't think anybody can argue with that. That's just how it is. He's an incredible talent and he's a lot of fun to watch."
And Bryce Harper is still traveling the perilous road that takes a young player from man-child to finished product.
He's not alone in that regard. Manny Machado precipitated a childish bat-throwing controversy in June before knee problems eventually ended his season. Xander Bogaerts is hitting .223 in 485 plate appearances with Boston. Gregory Polanco got off to a torrid start in Pittsburgh before lugging a 1-for-30 slump back to Triple-A Indianapolis this week. Mike Moustakas, in his third full season with Kansas City, played his way back to Omaha in May. Even when Wil Myers has been healthy, he's been challenged to display the skills that earned him the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year Award. And Jason Heyward, defensive prowess notwithstanding, has a lower OPS this season (.742) than Cubs infielder Luis Valbuena.
Harper would fit in nicely with that group, except that he garnered the most attention as a teen, signed the biggest bonus out of the draft and has by far the most lucrative endorsement portfolio, with national deals for Gatorade and Under Armour and a GEICO commercial in his recent past.
"The spotlight is a little brighter on Bryce than it is for those other guys," said Washington manager Matt Williams. "I think we all understand that."
As the Nationals try to rebound from a three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies and regain the momentum from their recent 10-game win streak, they continue to rely on a community effort. Denard Span and Anthony Rendon, the first two hitters in the order, have combined to score 186 runs this season, and Ian Desmond leads major-league shortstops with 21 homers and 80 RBIs. The Washington pitching staff leads the National League with a 3.13 ERA, and the Nats have overcome a hamstring injury to Ryan Zimmerman to take a 6½-game lead over Atlanta in the division.
Harper is trying to contribute as a late season X factor, as he copes with the fallout from a torn thumb ligament that he suffered on a head-first slide into third base against San Diego on April 25. Between knee surgery in November and thumb surgery in April, Harper has spent a lot more time than he would have preferred tweeting updates of his medical condition.
During the three-game series in Philadelphia, Harper went 0-for-9 with five strikeouts and looked lost at the plate. The following numbers from ESPN Stats & Information substantiate the notion that if Harper's hand isn't ailing him, something is:
• In 2013, Harper had a hard-hit ball rate of 23 percent against right-handed pitchers. This year, it's 13 percent.
• He had a swing-and-miss rate against righties of 22 percent in 2012. It increased to 25 percent last season and has spiked to 30 percent this year.
• Most telling, Harper has shown little or no ability to drive the ball on certain pitches. In his first two big-league seasons, Harper saw 1,854 pitches in the top half of the strike zone and produced 27 homers, six triples and 27 doubles. On 446 such pitches this season, he has four doubles, one triple and two homers.
Hand injuries can be physically and emotionally debilitating to hitters, and Harper sought some advice from teammate Jayson Werth, who has endured a series of power-sapping wrist injuries in his career. Werth told Harper that he won't feel completely right until he has a chance to rest and strengthen his hand in the offseason. In the interim, he'll just have to make do.
"I've never tried to put an excuse on anything I do," Harper said, "but it's tough going into every single day when your thumb doesn't feel great and you can't get to the baseball like you want to, or you're thinking about getting jammed. If I don't have my top-hand strength, I can't get to the inside pitch. But for the past couple of weeks, it's felt pretty dang good. Hopefully, it's where I need to be."
An American League scout, who is admittedly not sold that Harper will ever become what he was cracked up to be, sees a hitter who looks uncertain at the plate and is in perpetual experimentation mode.
"I've seen a couple of different approaches with his setup and his swing, which makes you think he's searching," the scout said. "He missed a lot of time, and now he's playing catch-up and he's trying to do too much. There's a lot of stuff going on, especially with a young kid who's a little immature and got all that hype. He's in the middle of the order and he wants to produce and help his team. But anytime you have a hand injury, it takes a while to heal."
Rounding out the rough edges
Within the confines of the Washington clubhouse, Harper is regarded as more a mischievous younger brother than a distraction or an outcast. His teammates occasionally roll their eyes over his youthful indiscretions and the media's penchant for focusing on him and pitcher Stephen Strasburg at the expense of other Nationals who are more deserving. He's had some difficulty co-existing with home-plate umpires, and there are times when he needs to show a greater appreciation for the game's finer points rather than rely strictly on raw talent.
Case in point: The seventh inning of Monday's 3-2 loss in Philadelphia. After Desmond doubled to start the inning, Harper swung at the first pitch and flied out to left field and failed to advance the runner. It was a prime example of a young player trying to make a big statement at the expense of a little contribution.
Harper still makes too many mistakes on the bases, and the consensus among scouts is that he's better-suited for a corner outfield spot than center field over the long haul. But Harper's fellow Nationals understand his importance to the team's fortunes, and they respect his work ethic and will to win. It's easier to overlook some things when they know his heart is in the right place.
"I'm not going to get into his perception around the game, but he's a great kid and great teammate," said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. "He plays the game extremely hard and wants to be good. And most importantly, he wants his team to be good. We've never had a problem with him being a good teammate or with his effort."
Except for that blip in the narrative in April, when Williams responded to a couple of sorry performances by the Nationals with a warning that the next player who was guilty of lollygagging it down the line could expect to take a seat on the bench. Harper, who was bothered by a quad injury at the time, made the mistake of peeling off halfway to first on a comebacker to the mound against St. Louis, and Williams drew a line in the sand and pulled him from the game.
"It could have been anybody," Williams said of the team-wide directive. "But Bryce just happened to be the guy."
The storyline took another turn three weeks ago, when Williams declined to rule out the possibility of a refresher course for Harper in the minors during a morning radio interview, then lashed out at reporters who followed up on the topic later the same day. Although it might have been a well-intentioned attempt to show he was solidly in Harper's corner, the forceful nature of Williams' outburst sent up some yellow caution flags.
But if you snoop around the Washington clubhouse in search of a rift, you're barking up the wrong manager-player dynamic. Williams and Harper freely discuss their relationship and seem almost amused at the idea that they're at odds.
"I've never had a problem with Matt," Harper said. "I've never gone in there and yelled or screamed at any time. Any time he's talked to me, it's been all positive stuff. When he sat me down for not hustling to first base, I tipped my cap to him. I would have done the same thing. There's nothing I can say bad about the guy. And I would tell you, because I'm 100 percent honest with that stuff."
Williams, a former five-time All-Star with 378 career big-league home runs, hit .188, .205 and .202 in his first three seasons with the San Francisco Giants, so he can appreciate the learning curve for young players at the highest level. The stakes are inevitably higher in Harper's case because of the "Chosen One" vibe that's enveloped him since age 16.
"We have set a standard on how we're going to play this game and what we have to do every day to win, and Bryce like everybody else has to fall in line with that -- which he has," Williams said. "That being said, I want to write his name in the lineup every day, because he can wrap a ball around the foul ball or hit a double to left field off a lefty to start us a rally. He can drive runs in and throw guys out at the plate. All those things make me want to put his name in the lineup every day.
"There's nothing wrong with Bryce, and there's nothing wrong with my relationship with Bryce. He's a 21-year-old kid and he's trying to work his way through the big leagues, and it's not easy. He's on his way, but it takes time."
A big offseason
Earlier this year, Harper proposed to Kayla Varner, an Ohio State University soccer player, and the nuptials are scheduled for January. Between signing off on the menu options and helping with the guest list, he's looking forward to a winter of rehabbing and laying the groundwork to dispel his burgeoning reputation as injury-prone.
"I really want to play 162 games -- or at least 155 or 160," Harper said. "If I can play 162, I'm coming at you with really big numbers. I can tell you that first-hand."
Aside from his injury-related down time, Harper's résumé still looks pretty good. Baseball-reference.com ranks players with comparable numbers through history, and Harper's three closest comps through age 20 were Tony Conigliaro, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mickey Mantle. Until Javier Baez arrived in the big leagues with the Cubs in early August, Harper had been the youngest player in the National League every day of his career.
For sake of comparison, St. Louis outfield mega-prospect Oscar Taveras is hitting .233 with a .272 OPS in 56 games this season. He's four months older than Harper.
When Harper isn't in uniform, he roams the Washington clubhouse with a T-shirt bearing the inscription "Make History." The ultimate question is, what kind? He slapped a big fat target on his back by flashing so much pre-Nat attitude on his way through the minors. And no matter how many autographs he signs or elderly women he helps on the mayonnaise aisle, he's going to be regarded as overhyped and a product of media overkill until he puts together that transcendent season.
"I think it's always going to be like that," Harper said. "If you're doing good, someone will still be telling you that you're terrible. If you're doing bad, there will 10 more people telling you that you're the worst player on the planet. I love playing this game, and it really doesn't matter what Joe Schmo says in the stands, or what this or that person says.
"Ever since I was 10, I've gotten humbled. I never thought I was bigger than the game. I've always had a chip on my shoulder and thought I was better than everybody I played against, but that's just how I am. Off the field, I'm a totally different person. I'll talk to you and respect you and I don't think I'm bigger than anybody. But when I'm on the field, I owe it to everybody in the world to try to be the best player out there. If people don't like me, so be it."
That's some admirable perspective for a 21-year-old. It is no longer fashionable or realistic to mention Harper in the same sentence with Mike Trout, or compare the two in any way. But if Harper can ever combine ability and commitment with his new-found wisdom -- and better health -- he still has time to establish his own legacy in the game.
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