“So, tell me about your brother.”
That is the unavoidable first question Bryan Harper, a relief pitcher in the Washington Nationals’ minor league system must answer every time he sits down for an interview. It’s not hard to imagine the 6′-5″ left-hander, who is having the best season of his four-year minor league career for the Harrisburg Senators, has grown tired of discussing his younger brother, Bryce. The elder Harper, however, does not seem to mind discussing the Major League exploits of little brother.
“It’s fun watching him. I think everyone’s enjoying it around the game. It’s always fun to watch somebody be really good at their profession.”
Bryce Harper, the likely National League MVP this season, is clearly really good at his profession, as evidenced by his .334/.463/.663 line to go along with 29 home runs and 69 driven in. It’s the breakout season many around the game of baseball have been waiting on since the younger Harper brother graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16.
Big brother, too, is really good at his profession. Bryan, who was drafted by the Nationals for the first time back in 2008 at roughly the same time Bryce was gracing the cover of SI, has posted a 2.00 ERA in 36.0 innings out of the ‘pen this season for the Nationals’ Double-A squad in Harrisburg. Opponents are batting just .195 against him, and he has given up just two home runs all year. Harper went 17 appearances, spanning the better part of three months without allowing a runner to cross the plate from May through July.
The route to a successful professional baseball career was a bit circuitous for Bryan Harper. He did not sign out of high school, electing to attend Cal State Northridge before transferring to the College of Southern Nevada where Bryce was his catcher. After Bryce moved on from Southern Nevada, Bryan’s career shifted again, this time to the University of South Carolina.
“You grow up a lot in college, and I wanted to get the real college experience with the football and everything like that. Going to South Carolina was a huge, huge thing for me. Obviously I dealt with some adversity there — didn’t pitch the best. But I got rewarded with a national championship, and no matter what, no one will ever be able to take that away from me.”
While there is no debating the fact that Harper struggled in his one year with the Gamecocks — 5.40 ERA in 18.1 innings — the struggles have not held him back in professional baseball.
“Now, I feel like I’m in just as good a spot if I had signed with the Cubs out of junior college, or even the Nationals out of high school. Looking at guys that get drafted out of high school, a lot of them that were drafted at the same time I was are in the same spot I am now. College just allowed me to do a lot of maturing and growing up.”
When Bryan was drafted by the Nationals the first time, Bryce was still a high schooler. The second time around, however, little brother was baseball’s consensus top prospect and tearing things up in the minor leagues. Bryan was taken in the 30th round by the Nationals, but the organization has always made sure to let him be his own player, separate of Bryce.
“Bryce always said it was a big family organization to begin with. There’s always been a big family aspect to the Nationals, so it was reassuring to me that they were going to treat me as my own player and let me be my own guy. It helps that we’re both not position players. I’m the pitcher, he’s the fielder, so it’s not like we have to deal with the same coaches.”
After struggling with injuries and inconsistency the first three years of his career, Bryan Harper has really come into his own this year at Double-A. After walking six men in 7.0 April innings, Harper has been locked in, walking just eight over the 29.0 innings that followed the bumpy first month of the season.
“This year, it’s really just been about being consistent. Even at the beginning of this year, compared to late year, I was walking guys, getting behind in the count. As soon as I locked in back in May, I started throwing more strikes, getting outs, and just letting hitters get themselves out. This year as a whole, I’ve just been more consistent and have been able to stay within myself.”
The scoreless streak did come to an end, as all good things must, but Harper remains effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. Left-handed hitters are batting just .167 against him on the season, but right-handers have also struggled to make solid contact as well, batting just .209.
“Right now, all my pitches are working really well. They’re in the strike zone, and that’s the biggest thing. As long as you get your pitches in the zone and get some swing-and-misses and soft contact, you’re going to be successful.”
For a left-hander without exceptional velocity and real strikeout stuff, Harper has still found a way to excel against hitters from both sides of the plate, which will be key in helping him to establish himself as a real Major League prospect.
“I’ve always prided myself on being able to get lefties and righties out. Growing up, I was a starter, and I’ve always known how to get both guys out. Regardless of whether my changeup is a plus-plus pitch, or my slider is, I’ve always just prided myself on getting guys out. It shouldn’t matter whether a guy is a right-hander or a left-hander, it’s all about throwing up a zero and getting guys out.”
At the start of the year, you could be forgiven for not knowing there was a second Harper in the Nationals organization. His appearance at big league camp in March wearing a number 33 on his back prompted more than a few puzzled expressions, but the former 30th round pick has broken through this year. Now, his name is one that should be known by those who follow the Nationals.
There will always be a place in a Major League bullpen for a left-handed reliever who can throw strikes and be effective against hitters from both sides of the plate. Bryan Harper has proved again and again this season that he has that potential. With another consistent season under his belt in 2016, there is a distinct possibility that a second B. Harper will find his way onto the Washington Nationals’ roster.