Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bryce Harper's Coming Out Party

In writing up my final MLB Power Ranking last week, I finished up the Washington Nationals comments with this line: "I believe that this postseason could very well be Bryce Harper's true launching pad to on-field stardom."

The Nats finished 2nd in the Power Ranking and were the team that I believed were best positioned to win the World Series. The San Francisco Giants killed that possibility by dumping Washington in four games in one of the National League Division Series.

But the postseason performance of Harper, limited to those four games as it was, may indeed have been that launching pad. Harper launched a few himself, blasting 3 homeruns. He also scored 4 runs and knocked in 4. He hit .294, registering a .368 on-base percentage, an .882 slugging percentage, and had an OPS of 1.251 as well.

Harper began his assault on Giants pitching in the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 1 with the Nats trailing 3-0. Against reliever Hunter Strickland, Harper led off and absolutely crushed a titanic shot into the right field upper deck at Nationals Park to get the Nats on the board.

Harper, who appears to thrive under pressure in dramatic situations, sensed the importance of getting the Nats crowd back into the game: "Get some runs on the board, get this crowd back into it. Getting them going was very exciting." It wouldn't ultimately be enough, as San Fran held on to win 3-2, going up 1-0 in the series.

Game 2 would prove to be historic, the longest postseason game by time in MLB history, tied for the longest by innings.
The affair wasn't ended until Brandon Belt's 18th inning homerun gave the Giants a 2-1 victory. Harper was conspicuous by his absence in the game, going 0-7, striking out twice and leaving a pair in scoring position.

With their backs to the wall as Game 3 headed out west to AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Nationals staved off elimination with a 4-1 victory. Harper was the centerpiece player. He scored all the way from 1st base on a throwing error by Madison Bumgarner in the top of the 7th, part of a 3-run rally that broke a scoreless tie.

Then, in the top of the 9th, Harper blasted a pitch from reliever Jean Machi over the right-centerfield fence to extend the lead out to 4-0 in what would end up as a 4-1 win, keeping the Nationals alive and moving them within a game of evening up the best-of-five NLDS.

Harper's HR into McCovey Cove tied Game 4 of the NLDS

In yesterday's game 4, again needing to win to stay alive, the Nats fell behind again, the Giants taking a 2-1 lead into the top of the 7th inning. With one out and Strickland, his Game 1 victim, again on in relief, Harper crushed a pitch well over the right field wall and out into McCovey Cove to tie the game.

Ultimately the Giants would again prevail in a 1-run game, winning the series 3 games to 1, all of their victories coming by that single-run margin. Except for his collar in Game 2, when most of the Nats failed to produce, Bryce Harper was producing the entire series. Great defensive plays, hustling on the bases, blasting homeruns.

Even since appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June of 2009 as a 16-year old, Harper has been a marked man to some. Back then, SI's highly respected baseball writer Tom Verducci called him the most exciting sports prodigy "since Lebron (James)" and commented that he "has faster bat speed than Mark McGwire in his prime."

Harper's 2009 SI cover at age 16

Harper became the 2010 winner of the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the best amateur baseball player in the United States. He was then taken that year by the Nationals with the 1st overall pick in the MLB Draft. Thereafter he was consistently rated as one of the top 3 prospects in the game.

In the fall of 2010, Harper was selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League, a showcase league for many of the game's top prospects. There he hit .343 and helped his Scottsdale Scorpions win the league championship. In 2011 at midseason, he was selected to play for the United States in the All-Star Futures Game, another top prospect showcase.

After rising through two levels in the minors over the last couple seasons, Harper was finally called up to the Majors on the same exact date as another phenom, Mike Trout, on April 27th, 2012, and made his much-anticipated MLB debut the following day. Ever since, Harper has routinely and unfairly been compared to Trout, a far different type player and personality.

Harper & Trout both called up to Majors on same day

Both Harper and Trout became MLB All-Star Game participants in their first year, and at season's end it was Bryce Harper winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award, with Trout taking the honors in the American League.

Ever since that strong debut season, while Trout has become a regular AL MVP contender and a smiling future face of the game, Harper has battled injuries and perceptions by fans in road cities that he is spoiled at best, petulant and ornery at worst. Though snake-bitten by the injury bug, he has proven not spoiled and petulant, but simply one of the game's great, all-out, hard-driving competitors.

On the injury front, early in the 2013 season he crashed into the outfield wall at Nationals Park on both April 29th and May 13th, injuring his ribcage in the first collision and his left knee in the second. He would aggravate the knee in a headfirst slide at the end of May. Likely compensating for the injured knee, Harper began to feel discomfort in his left hip, and the combination of all these injuries directly led to decreased production.

His one highlight was being elected to the MLB All-Star Game, and being selected to participate in the Homerun Derby. Despite battling his injuries, Harper advanced all the way to the Finals, where he was edged out by Yoenis Cespedes by 9-8. Harper is the youngest player to ever advance to the Derby Finals. In the off-season, he had surgery to remove a bursa sac from the left knee.

Hoping to put it all behind him and get a full, healthy 2014 season under his belt, Harper again suffered a debilitating injury, tearing a ligament in his left thumb while sliding headfirst into 3rd base in late April. He would miss 57 games, more than 1/3 of the season, and wouldn't regain his full power stroke until the late stages.

While I am calling the 2014 MLB postseason the Bryce Harper coming-out party, he actually started bashing before the playoffs even began. As the 2nd half of 2014 moved along and the Nats pulled away to an easy NL East crown, Harper hit .305 with 9 homers after August 12th.

Based on his performances in MLB when healthy, it is clear that Bryce Harper is a special talent. He is still just 21 years old, turning 22 in the middle of next week. He has never, in college, the minor leagues, or the Majors, faced a pitcher who was younger than him.

Off the field, Harper became engaged this past spring to his hometown Las Vegas girlfriend, Kayla Varner. She is a soccer player at Ohio State University now, after transferring from Brigham Young. Both Harper and Varner are Mormons, with strong faith and family principles guiding their lives.

Harper and fiancee' Kayla Varner

There is no doubt that Bryce Harper has been immature at times. Remember fans, he is 21 years old. Tell me about how mature you were at that age. There is also no doubt that Harper is one of the hardest working players on the field, in the batting cage, and in the workout room.

Bryce Harper still has some growth and maturity to add to his game. As he ages and settles down in his personal life, that is likely to come naturally. He also needs to find a way to stay healthy, which may require nothing more than simple fortune smiling on him for a change.

I believe that given health, the baseball world is about to be treated to the real Bryce Harper. He will become one of the game's great all-around players, a regular contender for home run crowns, Gold Glove awards, and Most Valuable Player awards.

When we read back and look over what I believe will be his great career, for many of us it will be the titanic blasts struck in the 2014 NLDS that we will remember as the young man's true coming out party to the larger baseball world. Bryce Harper is excitement. Bryce Harper is hustle. Bryce Harper is baseball.

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