Bryce Harper — The boy’s a bit special

To the extent that I’m still a serious baseball fan, I am of the tiresome “seen it all before” variety. The fact is that I have seen about half of “it” – i.e., the history of baseball in the modern era. And I have read extensively about the other half.

Thus, when the Washington Nationals called up teen-age phenom Bryce Harper I was prepared to be a skeptic and a critic. That inclination began to vanish when he stole home plate after an opposing pitcher intentionally plunked him. Over the next weeks, the kid has gradually transformed me into a Harper cheerleader.

His batting statistics alone might have justified the transformation. Through 32 games (basically the equivalent of one-fifth of a season of everyday play), Harper is batting .288 with 5 home runs, 12 RBI, and 17 walks. His on-base percentage is .380 and he’s slugging .542, for an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .922. A little while ago, I read that only Hall of Famer Mel Ott could boast of comparable statistics as a teen-ager. By now, Harper may be running ahead of Young Master Ott (as his first manager John McGraw called him).

But it’s more than just stats with Harper. He falls behind 0-2 in the count and then draws walks. He works the pitcher for 10 pitches and then draws walks. He has the maturity at the plate of a savvy 12-year veteran.

And it’s more than just hitting. Harper has been converted on-the-fly to center-field. During his brief time in the minors, he played mostly right-field. If I’m not mistaken, just two years ago he was a catcher. Catcher and center-field are polar opposite positions, so hardly anyone who begins at one of them ends up at the other.

To be sure, the great Dale Murphy did. But Murphy moved to center-field at age 24 after spending parts of six seasons in the National League and establishing himself as a big-league hitter. To be learning to hit big-league pitching and learning a challenging new defensive position at the same time, and at the age of 19, must be unprecedented.

When the season is over, the “advanced fielding statistics” will tell us how well Harper is doing in center field. But he certainly passes the eye-ball test out there – he looks like he belongs.

Finally, there is Harper’s base-running, the most controversial part of his game. It was on the base paths that he first caught our attention, and in a positive way. Lately, though, as opponents have learned that he will always try to take the extra base, Harper has been thrown out several times.

But the two recent instances of this were not really bad plays. He was thrown out on close calls at second base with two out, and third base with one out. These are not baseball no-nos. Getting to second base with two out is very valuable, since your team is likely only to get one more hit in the inning, at most, and from second you can score on that hit. Getting to third base with one out is very valuable because, unlike with two gone, you can score from third on an out.

Tom Boswell of the Post, an early Harper booster, has criticized the kid’s base-running. He noted that when Harper was thrown out at third, the heart of the order was due up. But the heart of the order consisted of Ryan Zimmerman, who isn’t hitting, Adam La Roche, who could have been pitched around, and Michael Morse, who had missed the entire season and doesn’t appear to be in form yet. Collectively, these three went 0-12 during the game in question. So it wasn’t a bad percentage move for Harper to try to put himself in position to score on an out.

Boswell is right about the larger point, though. Harper will need to dial it back a little on the bases. He seems to have figured everything else out, so think he’ll get this too.

Meanwhile, I’ve made the transformation from too jaded to too gushing. In a previous post, I compared Harper (for a limited purpose) to Jackie Robinson. In this one, I’ve compared him to Ott. He’s also been compared in his enthusiasm for the game to a young Willie Mays. The “Say Hey Kid,” played stick ball in the streets of Manhattan; Harper has participated in soft-ball on the D.C. Mall.

In some ways, the player Harper reminds me most of is Pete Rose. Harper has much more power than Rose possessed and will draw more walks than Rose did during most of his career. On the other hand, Harper likely won’t hit for Rose’s batting average, or re-write the record book in various categories. But both have the same kind of in-your-face intensity. So, though their games differ, I enjoy them both the same way.

Sparky Anderson once said, when Thurman Munson was being compared to Johnny Bench, “let’s not embarrass anyone.” So I’ll stop embarrassing myself with comparisons and say, with the understatement of an English soccer fan, “the boy’s a bit special.”


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