So, I’ve never met Bryce Harper in person, but everything I’ve heard is that he’s a big jerk. And why not, he’s been coddled and spoiled as a star athlete heir to a throne before he could drive without adult supervision. In his first three major league seasons, we’ve seen flashes of brilliance that project him straight into all-time great status. We’ve also seen fits and benchings for not running out a routine grounder to first. We’ve seen a swagger that screams, “Yeah, I was that jock in high school who put that kid in a garbage can and rolled him down two flights of stairs just to assert my dominance.”
Nobody likes knowingly rooting for a guy they’d rather punch than shake hands with. This season, however, I think he’s quietly earning that swagger in a way that no longer guards an immature guy prone to lashing out. Instead of all the affected behaviors of hair-flips (okay, he still does that), the pro wrestling overdose on eyeblack and the propensity to make poor throws from the outfield, because he believes nobody should run on his cannon, he seems to be centered. He’s allowing his game to do the talking and it’s talkin’ loud.
To clarify, while I’d prefer not to root for the bully or the jerk, I also just really enjoy watching somebody at the top of their game. That’s Bryce Harper right now. That was Barry Bonds for quite some time, but particularly from 2000-2004. Hey, we all knew Bonds was a jerk back then. Many of us had pretty solid suspicions the guy was jacked on enough juice to run The Preakness and win it on two legs. Lest we be revisionist historians, we must also admit that his at-bats were must-watch TV. I know they were for me. Hell, Michael Jordan had a well-manicured and handled public persona, but we know he’s no angel. Yet, anybody who had a pulse from ’84-’98 was loving everything Mike could be like on a basketball court.
So far this season, Bryce Harper has been must-see TV for baseball fans. I know he has for me. But the question is how did he get here so quickly after last year’s injury-marred and struggle-plagued season? First, let’s talk about pitch recognition. Now, I’m not quite ready to put Harper on par with Manny Ramirez, but he’s clearly made huge strides here. Remember his ejection in the series with the Yankees? The pitch he didn’t swing at and was subsequently tossed for his frustration with the strike call? It was almost exactly the same as this pitch here, thrown by Trevor Rosenthal and absolutely whiffed on by Harper.
When you are leading the world in walks (42) and barely striking out anymore than that (46), that tells me your pitch recognition has vastly improved.
Essentially, Harper is refusing to go outside the zone and fish at pitchers’ breaking pitches. You can also argue to support Harper’s plate discipline being greatly improved when you look at his lineup protection. Jayson Werth just went down with a wrist injury and he wasn’t producing. After Bryce’s team-leading 18 homers, Danny Espinosa has 6, followed by Ryan Zimmerman with 5. Zimmerman is the only other guy driving many runners in (32 RBIs to Harper’s 43), but he has a .227/.286/.386 slash line. The lineup – still waiting on Anthony Rendon to exist on this plane again – is anchored solely by Harper. And he’s still atop the league in almost every offensive category (homers, RBIs, OPS, walks, on and on). Good thing the Washington Nationals have all that pitching, that way they don’t need to score a lot of runs to win. Another thing that has been talked about is his batting stance. According to F.P. Santangelo of MASN2, Harper has left his back foot down until after making contact with the ball, which allows his hips to drive more power to the ball. Whereas, in the last few years, he had been picking up his back foot in order to stride into his swing, but that seems to sap some of the natural power he possesses. Apparently that little tweak has helped a lot. What’s even nicer for Harper, and baseball fans, is that he has returned to the debate he and Mike Trout started in 2012 when they both won Rookie of the Year honors.
Who would you rather have?