Bryce Harper: The natural

May 29, 2013, 12:18 PM

Is Bryce Harper the best 20-year-old player ever? That’s a clown question, bro. (Of course he is.) 

There is a 20-year-old kid slumped in a recliner in the Washington Nationals vast, oblong clubhouse, scratching his ass and playing Sonic the Hedgehog on his iPhone. He’s wearing red shorts, a grey T-shirt, flip flops and only one sock, pulled all the way up above his right calf. A red bandana is tied around his head—which he has shaved around the back and sides while leaving the top untouched—forcing what’s left of his brown locks to sprout out at the top like bristles on a broom. They rub against the leather of the chair as he reaches further into the backside of his shorts, really getting after it.

This brief attention-split results in a momentary loss of dexterity and, unfortunately, an undeserved demise for poor Sonic at the claws of a stationary red crustacean. No matter; the 20-year-old is now on to other concerns, as he thumbs away from the game and pulls up a weather map of the D.C. area that looks kind of like a rock covered with moss. Splotches of green run all over the display, representing low-pressure systems that threaten to delay the start of a baseball game that night or even postpone it for the second evening in a row. “F—ing horses—,” he murmurs to himself, before springing out of the chair, staring wildly around the clubhouse for a moment and then trundling over to his left, where he fetches one of the 14 pairs of custom shoes lined up neatly at the foot of his locker, three light-brown Marucci bats, a pair of chauffeur-white batting gloves that he fished out from behind a case of Proactiv acne solution, and a red Washington Nationals hat, before half-jogging his way to the indoor batting cages without saying a word.

This is common. When he’s in the clubhouse, the young man often looks like you might if you were convinced no one was looking. But the difference between you and this 20-year-old is that everyone is always looking. Everywhere he goes, everything he does is scrutinized and dissected—it’s been this way since he was a teenager. And though he never even graduated high school, he has been contracted at an exorbitant rate to do a job that matters an enormous amount to a whole lot of people. Every day, when he goes to work, thousands are watching him intensely, invested both financially and emotionally in his performance. In this he is not alone. But what separates him from the other people paid so much to do the same job is that he’s expected to be the greatest. Millions who have never even met him and couldn’t tell you the first thing about what runs through his head waited eagerly for the day he arrived, in the unshakable belief that when he did, he would do amazing things and rescue a long-troubled team.

So far it’s going very well. He is, by most measures, the best ever to do what he does at such a young age. He’s been doing it for a little more than a full calendar year and has come exactly as advertised. He has been dominant, irrepressible, prolific and defiant. He has been righteous.

Yet, sometimes we forget that Bryce Harper is just 20—and that this is all a little much for someone his age.

Tony Tarasco won’t ever forget the handshake. It happened in Hagerstown, Md., a small city an hour north of Washington, known previously for being a brutal battleground during the Civil War, and now for being where Bryce Harper began his career. The Nationals’ single-A affiliate, the Hagerstown Suns, play ball there, and Harper arrived in April 2011, as a 17-year-old first-overall draft pick with all the hype in the world and a five-year, $9.9-million contract—the third-largest draft deal ever awarded—in tow. Tarasco, the Nationals’ minor-league outfield and baserunning instructor at the time, didn’t know what to expect from the kid. Harper had dropped out of high school as a sophomore so he could enter the MLB draft a year earlier and had earned a rather unsavoury reputation around baseball for being an impudent and spoiled juvenile who thought he was bigger than the game. There was tape going around of Harper, his eyes flaring above the long streaks of eye black running down his face that would make the Ultimate Warrior jealous, taunting his opponents and drawing lines in the dirt with his bat at the feet of umpires as he argued over strikes. But when Harper showed up in Hagerstown, he grabbed Tarasco’s hand, firm as a vise, looked him in the eye and said he was ready to work. Tarasco can still feel the grip. “It was impressive how built he was,” Tarasco, now the Nationals’ first-base coach, says. “He was just 17, but he was already in a grown man’s body.”

Tarasco was given the task of taking an immensely talented yet unpolished teenage catcher and turning him into an outfielder—a position Harper had never played—with the goal of having him major-league ready within a year. It was a steep, likely unprecedented challenge, but Tarasco found that most days, instead of having to motivate Harper to get to the park early to work out as he would with most young players, he actually had to tell Harper to restrain himself. “There was almost an overkill about him,” Tarasco says, spitting globs of chewing tobacco into a Gatorade cup. “He wanted to do so much that I had to get him to tone it down a lot of the time.”

No matter his antics on the field, Harper’s grind during practice and training sessions was legendary around the ballparks he grew up playing on. When he was in high school, Harper would wake up at five in the morning to work out for hours, and then return to the gym after school to do it all again. During the off-season, he works out six days a week, focusing on his upper body on Mondays and Thursdays, his lower body on Tuesdays and Fridays and doing plyometric exercises and boxing on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Even now, it’s not uncommon for Harper to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and go to the gym to do heavy squats and power cleans. “It’s instilled in his heart; it’s anchored in there,” Tarasco says. “He wakes up in the morning thinking about what he has to do to be a better ballplayer.”

But in spite of all that, Harper started his first year of professional ball slowly, batting just .231 with 12 strikeouts in his first 12 games with Hagerstown and struggling to read fly balls in the outfield. It wasn’t initially clear why he was having such a hard time until he mentioned offhandedly to Tarasco that he suffered from blurry vision and had tried contacts in high school but abandoned them because they gave him headaches. The next day he was off to see Keith Smithson, the Nationals’ optometrist, who, after examining Harper’s eyes and asking him to read an eye chart, told the teenager, “I don’t know how you ever hit before. You have some of the worst eyes I’ve ever seen.” Harper left Smithson’s office with prescription contact lenses, and in his next 20 games he hit .480 with 17 extra-base hits and just 15 strikeouts while reaching base in more than half of his plate appearances. He had brought his OPS all the way up to .977 by the middle of summer, at which point he was promoted to double-A Harrisburg, where he put up nine multi-hit games before injuring his hamstring in August and being shut down for the rest of the season. He returned in 2012 and played 21 games for triple-A Syracuse before, just a year and a month after he shook Tarasco’s hand for the first time, Harper was called up to the majors to play the outfield in Washington.

So, let’s just spend a second with the numbers, shall we? Through his first 162 games as a major league ball player, Bryce Harper accumulated 6.2 wins above replacement, the ninth highest total over that stretch. No other teenager has ever posted a WAR above four. Not Ty Cobb, not Mel Ott and not Mickey Mantle—all Hall of Famers who debuted in their teens. Over that first full season, Harper’s isolated power was .234: higher than Albert Pujols, Andrew McCutchen, Prince Fielder, Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds in 2012—five of the best pure power hitters in the game. He hit 31 home runs, the same number Ted Williams hit in his age-20 season. Harper, now in his own age-20 season, is currently on pace for 44 homers—more than anyone that age has ever hit.

And, of course, he keeps getting better. In his second season in the majors, he’s striking out less, walking more, making more contact, swinging and missing less often and somehow hitting for more power. He hit two home runs on opening day and finished April with a 1.150 OPS, the third-highest in MLB. Through mid-May, he led the Nationals in every offensive category that matters, including walks, which is usually the facet of the game that gives young hitters the most trouble. “And that’s a testament to what he’s learned,” says Harper’s manager, Davey Johnson, “because they’re not going to give him a lot of stuff down the middle.” Most players improve in their early 20s as they adjust to playing against men, but Bryce Harper started his major-league career as one of the best players in the game. So it’s not unreasonable to predict that he’ll be a perennial MVP candidate for the next dozen or so years, health permitting.

Even his play in the outfield has improved steadily, as he’s learned to play more thoughtfully. Instead of coming up with every ball hit his way and firing it as hard as he can to home plate or third base, he looks for the cut-off man and tries to make a low, hard throw to put that player in a position to gun down the runner. When Harper first started playing the outfield, Tarasco watched him run after every fly ball the way he does to first base after hitting a grounder—all out and with his head down—which would often lead to him taking a bad route or overrunning it entirely. Now he glides across the grass, using longer strides so he can watch the ball and track it into his mitt. “He’s learning—he made a lot of mistakes early on,” says Tarasco, who played eight journeyman years in the majors. “But I try to remember what I was like when I was young in this game. What was fortunate for me was I got to make my mistakes in A-ball. He’s had to make his in the major leagues.”

But for all that Harper has accomplished and all he’s added to his game over the last year, he’s also lost something. The raw, unadulterated, take-no-prisoners edge that made him so exciting to watch when he was younger—and, in turn, caused him to be vilified throughout the game—is gone. Whether it’s his coaches finally getting through to him about toning down his on-field flair or the media-wary veterans on the Nationals discouraging him from speaking strongly into microphones or just a general weariness from having his every move scrutinized to such an insane degree, something gave. This is no longer the brash teenager who smashed bats in the dugout and boasted about how great he was going to be, how he would win at all costs, do whatever it took to make plays. Not the ornery kid who argued aggressively with umpires and taunted his opponents, like when he blew a kiss to a minor-league pitcher he had just hit a home run off. Far from the hyper-competitive antagonist who said he wanted to drive second basemen into left field and catchers into the backstop when he was running the bases. The caustic aura of animosity that engulfed him when he reached the majors has dissipated to the point where he’s almost monotonous. “He’s moving away from that persona,” Tarasco says. “He’s changing what he puts forward.”

Now, this could be a good thing. When he first arrived in the majors, his acerbic, cocky attitude pissed people off, and the game fought back. Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels was the first, drilling Harper in the back with a 93-mph fastball in his eighth game in the majors and then bragging about it afterwards, saying he did it as a means of policing Harper’s antics and protecting “that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.” Fans at parks across the league booed Harper lustily throughout his first season, just like they did when he was in college and the minors, where he was even booed at his home park in Hagerstown. This year, when Harper argued third-base umpire John Hirschbeck’s check-swing third strike call by raising his arms and mouthing “Come on,” Hirschbeck immediately started walking toward Harper and shouting at him despite little provocation, eventually ejecting Harper from the game for what was a tepid-at-best display of disagreement. Anything that will avoid further confrontations like these will surely make life less troublesome, allowing Harper to focus more on being the best hitter of his generation and less on ducking fastballs aimed at his teeth.

But it could also be a really bad thing, because watching Harper’s rise won’t be nearly as fun if he can’t be himself. Would it be the worst thing in the world for a ballplayer to be frank about his aspirations and play the game with a little charisma? When did we stop celebrating those who challenge dated, ingrained conventions? If Harper could be brash and unruly on the field and speak his mind off it, he’d be that much more enjoyable. Love him or hate him, you’d always have a reason to watch him.

In spite of the weather report that dotted Harper’s iPhone with little green splotches, the Washington Nationals and Detroit Tigers did play nine innings that foggy night in May. The first pitch was delayed by more than an hour, and at times the game was contested through a steady downpour, but that didn’t stop Harper from coming to the plate in the third inning and sending a first-pitch curveball from Anibal Sanchez deep into the right-centre field seats to tie the game. He ran the bases with his head down and when he got to the dugout, he quickly grabbed his glove and went to sit by himself, waiting patiently for the next inning to begin. He didn’t seem to enjoy it much at all. Then, after the game, when a reporter asked him if he had been looking for a first-pitch curveball in that at-bat, a reasonable question considering his approach at the plate and the result, he gave a cross look and abruptly said, “I don’t really know what I look for,” which is a preposterous thing for a professional hitter of baseballs to say. That said, it’s at least a more novel course than his current approach to questioning, which involves weaving together an impressive number of clichés while never making eye contact. It’s the little things.

He finished his brief media interrogation quickly before darting off to the Nationals Park garage, where his vehicle awaited. It’s more of a statement than a car, a snow-white Mercedes CLS63 retrofitted with his first three initials and his number—BAM 34—where the CLS63 should go, and a Washington Nationals logo in place of the Mercedes one above the licence plate. It took a full month to customize the car to Harper’s liking, which is how long was needed to have many of the accoutrements—including the centre console, grilles and a hardly noticeable lip on the inside of the wheel—replaced with wildly expensive, pitch-black carbon fibre. If you open the trunk, you’ll find a bat rack, designed to hold four of Harper’s bats, and an LED-illuminated plaque reading “HARPER” in, of course, carbon fibre that glows bright when you open it. He had his initials burned into the carpeted floor mats with lasers. It’s a little much for a 20-year-old. But then again, so is all
of this.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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