With runners on first and third and two outs in a game last week between the Nationals and Phillies, Cole Hamels threw to first base to keep the runner in check. The Nationals’ 19 year old phenom Bryce Harper exploded towards home plate the moment Hamels lifted his leg like a sprinter leaving the blocks at the sound of a gun. Harper, who was called up on April 28th, was on base because Phillies starter Cole Hamels took it upon himself to “welcome him to the big leagues” with a fastball in the back. The first basemen realized Harper was running, and fired the ball to the catcher, but it was too late. Harper had stolen home, avenging the bean ball that later caused Hamels to be suspended for five games.
I had the pleasure to watch Harper play quite a bit last season, when he was with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. The first thing that struck me about Harper was his super-human bat speed. He generates this bat speed by contorting his lower body and then releasing the stored energy in a violent motion reminiscent of a rubber band being pulled back and released. The swing is more backyard wiffle ball than Major League Baseball. The second thing I noticed was the hustle he showed on the base paths. Even on routine ground balls, he made sure the fielder was forced to make the play in a timely manner by hustling down the line.
While it was clear last season that Harper had the talent to be one of the best, he was not a polished player as expected from an 18 year old. He had trouble judging off-speed pitches down in the zone. He often got out in front of curveballs below the knees, which led to numerous off-balance swings at pitches that should have been taken for a ball. In the field, he occasionally took awkward routes to reach a fly ball. Usually his athleticism allowed him to recover in time to make the catch, but on a couple occasions balls that should have been caught found grass instead. These are minor gripes about an extremely talented ballplayer, but they are the kind of things that make the minor leagues necessary for young players.
So when the Nationals announced that Harper would be making his debut so early in the 2012 season, I was slightly worried that it was too soon. So far Harper seems to be putting my worries to rest. Although it is a very small sample, he has put up a 93 wRC+ on the back of a good walk rate (11.8%), and a lower K% (15.7) than he posted at any stop of his minor league tour. According to a tiny sample from UZR, he has been above average in the outfield, and has been worth 0.4 wins in only 51 plate appearances. There is no reason to expect a drop in production either. His BABIP is only .278, and his ISO is currently sitting at .140 (ZiPS projected an ISO of .167). So essentially, he should start to hit for some more power as he becomes more comfortable with big league pitching.
Only six other players in the last twenty years have amassed over 100 plate appearances as a teenager, something that Harper will do this season barring injury. Those players include Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Adrian Beltre, both Upton brothers, and Mike Trout. Every single one of these players turned out to be, at the least, above-average major leaguers (although it’s a little early to tell for Trout). So will Bryce Harper live up to the hype? It’s still too early to tell, but baseball fans should begin to take note that this 19 year old in Washington with the wiffle-ball swing could possibly be the future of baseball.