When Bryce Harper does something, he does it all the way.
The latest example of this baseball truism came Thursday in the nation’s capital, when Harper launched his 100th career home run off the Atlanta Braves’ Julio Teheran.
First off, this was no cheap shot. Harper’s milestone blast traveled an estimated 429 feet, according to ESPN Stats & Information. (In a cool numerical twist, that’s the same distance his first career home run traveled.)
It was also a grand slam, the first of Harper’s big league career. And the Washington Nationals went on to win, 6-2, making Harper’s jack the difference.
Oh, and he did it on a very special occasion.
“It was my mom’s birthday today, so being able to hit her a homer was definitely huge,” Harper said, per James Wagner of the Washington Post.
So it was about as awesome as a 100th home run can be. If you’d scripted it, it would seem too trite and tidy by half.
Now, let’s pull back and ask a question that requires a ton of conjecture and some telescopic forward-gazing: At the tender age of 23, is Harper the best bet to someday break baseball’s all-time home run mark?
Yeah, it seems crazy to even talk about. So much can happen over the course of a career—including, most notably, injuries. Even the biggest talents can fizzle and falter at any time.
But admit it—you’re at least slightly intrigued.
First, let’s crunch some numbers. If Harper matches last season’s home run total of 42, he’d finish 2016 with 139 dingers. After that, if he averages 40 every year for the next 10 years, he’d be sitting at 539 going into his age-34 season.
That would be an impressive stretch of fence-clearing production, but by no means a ludicrous or unattainable output for a guy like Harper. Remember, as much as the reigning NL MVP has already made his mark on the game, his prime is still far on the horizon.
So let’s say Harper gets there. For perspective, Barry Bonds, the all-time home run king with 762, had 411 home runs entering his age-34 season.
Bonds, of course, went on a historic, almost surely chemically aided home run binge in the final decade of his career. So that’s an imperfect comparison.
A better comp might be Hank Aaron, who sits second all-time with 755, and had 481 homers entering his age-34 campaign. Or there’s Babe Ruth, third all-time with 714, who had 470. Aaron played until age 42, and Ruth until age 40.
So to have a realistic shot at catching Bonds, Harper would have to vault past that 40-homer average, find the (hopefully natural) fountain of youth in his later years and/or stay productive well into his 40s.
That’s a tall order. Just ask the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez—one of seven players to reach 100 homers at a younger age than Harper, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN Stats & Information).
For a while, it looked like A-Rod might have a shot at the all-time mark. Now, he seems destined to fall short, especially if he retires after the 2017 season like he’s indicated he might.
This is a steep, difficult mountain to scale. Many greats have tried and fallen short.
Speaking of greats, is there anyone aside from Harper in today’s game with a realistic shot?
The active leader behind Rodriguez is the Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols with 560. At age 36 and with injury issues nagging him in recent years, it seems unlikely Pujols will sniff 700.
Miguel Cabrera, with 409 at age 33, is a better bet, but it’d take a massive late-career surge and a serious assist from Father Time.
The more likely challengers have fewer home runs to their name but are also much younger.
At age 24, the Angels’ Mike Trout has 140 jacks. He might be Harper’s stiffest competition in this completely speculative future. Imagine them battling it out in 2031, when we’ll have put a man on Venus but still won’t have real, functioning hoverboards.
There’s also Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins, possibly the best pure power hitter in baseball. Stanton is sitting at 183 home runs at age 26, though he also has some troubling injury history.
As USA Today‘s Ted Berg noted, “Hank Aaron played in at least 145 games every single season from 1955-1970. Stanton has only done that twice in five seasons as a full-time major leaguer.”
The same can be said of Harper, who eclipsed 150 games played for the first time last season. Again, that’s why this is such a monumental feat—it requires an insane mixture of ability and durability.
Harper, though, has that quality that makes you think he could get there—that rare melange of brashness, bravado and a flair for the dramatic. Oh, and generational ability. That, too.
For now, Nats fans can bask in the glory of their newly minted 100-homer man. And Bryce’s mom can enjoy her gravity-defying birthday present.
When Harper does things, he does them all the way. Someday, we’ll find out if that includes breaking seemingly unbreakable records.
All statistics current as of April 14 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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