Bryce Harper's day has come
Ready or not, Nationals' 19-year-old phenom set to make major league debut
Teddy Roosevelt will win a Presidents Race at Nationals Park before Bryce Aron Max Harper flies under the radar. But if you're keeping score at home, the circumstances surrounding Harper's major league debut are a little nondescript for a kid whose autographed Sports Illustrated "Chosen One" cover is currently on sale for $299.99 on eBay.
Based on all the hype, Harper should arrive in Los Angeles on Saturday aboard a winged chariot, amid peals of thunder, blaring trumpets and a shower of golden confetti. At the very least, there should have been a great story about how Syracuse manager Tony Beasley pulled him off the team bus, slapped him on the back and mistily informed him, "Kid, you're headed to the Show."
Instead, it's just a crash course in reality, and the weird plot twists that occur when things go wrong during a 162-game season. Harper is a big leaguer because Ryan Zimmerman is hurt, the Nationals need a left-handed bat and they think Harper can be an upgrade over the guys who are hitting a combined .093 in left field this season. Beasley told the Washington Post that Harper was "stunned" and very humbled upon receiving the news of his promotion. And when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo discussed the call-up in a conference call, he sounded almost apologetic about it.
Harper didn't earn the promotion as much as have it thrust upon him. But when he steps into the box at Dodger Stadium, it will be momentous nevertheless because of the expectations. This has been a big day on the baseball calendar from the moment Harper decided to skip his final two years of high school, enroll at the College of Southern Nevada and terrorize junior college pitching rather than take a more conventional route to the majors.
Harper will become part of an elite club when he makes his debut in the majors at 19 years old. The list of teen hitters who've gotten the call includes Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Gary Sheffield, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines and both of Manny and Yvonne Upton's sons. Alex Rodriguez and Al Kaline were 18 when they played their first big league games, and Harmon Killebrew, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx were 17.
History says not to expect too much. Griffey hit .261 as a rookie and A-Rod went homerless in 54 at-bats in his first look with Seattle, so Rizzo was just acknowledging the obvious Friday when he told reporters it's not an "optimal" situation for Harper. Harper has 534 minor league plate appearances on his résumé, and a lot of items on his professional "to-do" list would have been better addressed without so much scrutiny. This is the baseball equivalent of taking a soufflé out of the oven 20 minutes early.
But baseball is the ultimate meritocracy, and in the end only one thing really matters: Even if he's not a finished product, is Bryce Harper ready to contribute toward a playoff push in Washington? It won't take long to find out.
When Harper made his professional debut with Single-A Hagerstown last year, a few things became painfully obvious right out of the chute. No one ever questioned the kid's ability to hit, but in 2011 he played the game with too much zeal and abandon for his own good.
Harper hit .297 with a .501 slugging percentage in two stops last year. He also tried to throw out opposing baserunners on the fly from the warning track, exercised poor judgment on the basepaths at times, and had occasional lapses in comportment stemming from youthful exuberance. Remember that kiss he blew to Greensboro pitcher Zachary Neal to culminate a home run trot in June?
This year, Harper went to Triple-A Syracuse with a mandate to iron out the rough spots, and by all accounts, he has made encouraging progress. He's played all three outfield spots and been more under control and better in his decision-making. That's about what you would expect from a talented prodigy who's a baseball rat at heart.
"He's really made significant strides with some of those details," Doug Harris, Washington's farm director, said by phone Friday night. "His baserunning has been very good. His outfield play at multiple positions has been very good, and he's thrown the ball intelligently and very accurately. He's always been blessed with a great deal of arm strength, but now he's doing a better job of controlling his body and maximizing his release."
Harper has only one home run in 72 at-bats in Triple-A ball. But Syracuse's park is one of the least hitter-friendly in the International League, so that was destined to put a crimp in his power numbers. Harper is hitting .190 (4-for-21) with six strikeouts and two walks against lefties this season. He has encountered crafty lefties and a sidearmer or two, as well as David Purcey, a former first-round pick who can still bring the fastball at 93-94 mph.
His outfield play at multiple positions has been very good, and he's thrown the ball intelligently and very accurately. He's always been blessed with a great deal of arm strength, but now he's doing a better job of controlling his body and maximizing his release.” -- Nationals farm director Doug Harris
"As Bryce gets more comfortable with this, he's understanding what they're trying to do to him and how he can manage those at-bats," Harris said. "It's really a mental approach."
Whenever a prospect is rushed to the major leagues, baseball lifers are going to be concerned about the potential long-term fallout from a bad experience. In this respect, it's instructive to look at the early journey of Angels center fielder Mike Trout, the contemporary prospect who is most frequently compared to Harper. Trout was 19 years, 11 months old when he unexpectedly got the call to Anaheim last July because of a hamstring injury to Peter Bourjos. He hit .220 in 123 at-bats over two stints with the Angels, then arrived in the Arizona Fall League with a slow, tired bat and struggled to produce there, too. Worse yet, Trout was a relative nonfactor in spring training this year because of a viral infection and a bout of shoulder tendinitis.
So here's what happened: Trout hit .403 in 20 games with Triple-A Salt Lake this month. The Angels released Bobby Abreu on Friday, and Trout received his third call to the majors just as Bryce Harper was getting his first. A few setbacks didn't crush Trout's spirit, and you get the distinct impression that an extended oh-fer won't stick to Harper. An International League manager whose team has played Syracuse this year thinks Harper has the resilience to survive whatever comes his way.
"He's athletic, aggressive and very confident," the manager said. "He looks like he can't wait to hit, or get a ball hit to him or run the bases. He's not intimidated or afraid. I don't think he's going to have any problems makeup-wise."
In contrast to Trout, who speaks in clichés and does his interviews as if he's being timed by a stopwatch, Harper is relaxed with the media and seems to enjoy the attention and the give-and-take. It will be interesting to see whether the Nationals decide to throw him into the fray with reporters or take the Mother Hen approach and try to carefully manage his publicity.
Harris is flying to the Dominican Republic on a scouting mission Saturday, so he won't be around to see Harper's debut. But he understands that it's a landmark day for the organization and baseball in general. The attention will ramp up even more in Washington on Tuesday, when Harper and the Nationals return home to play the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Nats have experienced this type of thing before with Stephen Strasburg, but the sense of anticipation never gets old.
"We're proud of Bryce," Harris said. "He's really absorbed himself in the process here, and a lot of people within the organization have helped him in different ways. We're going to be excited to watch him go out and compete and help our ballclub."
If you're fond of symbolism, it seems only fitting that Harper will take the field a few hours after the NFL draft, another repository of hopes, dreams and bountiful expectations. His grand entrance in Washington might feel like a rush job. But he'll never have to worry about being Mr. Irrelevant.