Bryce Harper Still the Right MLB Superstar to Build Franchise Around

Before we get on with what, I think, is going to be something like my 16th spirited defense of Bryce Harper, I must grant that this is one for the “had you told me” file.

It goes like this: Had you told me in 2012 that the young Washington Nationals outfielder wasn’t going to look like a slam-dunk franchise cornerstone a short way down the road, I either would have told you to go boil your bottom or settled for simply saying, “Yeah, right.”

But then Harper went and got himself Lemony Snicket-ed, falling prey to a series of unfortunate events that have downgraded his enormous potential from “sure thing” to “less sure thing.”

In fact, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of 2013 to find when Harper still looked like the guy who’d been dubbed baseball’s LeBron James at 16 in 2009, rightfully drafted No. 1 at 17 in 2010 and won the National League Rookie of the Year at 19 in 2012.

In 26 games last April, Harper hit .344 with a 1.150 OPS and nine home runs. FanGraphs had his WAR at 1.8, tying him for the major league lead and putting him on track for a Mike Trout-ish season.

Since then? Oh, boy. Let’s see…

  • Harper lost a couple battles with outfield walls after his hot start, eventually hitting the disabled list with a bad right knee. He would later admit to playing hurt for most of 2013 and then went in for offseason surgery.
  • Instead of repeating his heroics from the previous April, Harper started off 2014 by collecting only four hits in his first 25 at-bats with 11 strikeouts.
  • With his slow start barely in the rearview mirror, Harper found himself benched by first-year manager Matt Williams on April 19 for “lack of hustle” after dogging it on a ground ball.

  • Harper then suffered another serious injury, when he tore a ligament in his left thumb on a slide into third base. Then came another surgery and another month-long stay on the DL.
  • When Harper finally came off the DL, he found controversy before he found his first at-bat. All he had to do was question Williams’ lineup, saying Williams had himself, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon playing in the wrong places.
  • Soon after, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that some Nationals veterans “resent that Harper is the most famous and popular Nat” despite his lack of experience.

Maybe I’m missing something, but the gist is clear. In no time at all, the now-21-year-old Harper has gone from being a young, unspoiled golden child to being a banged-up problem child. Rather than a guy to build around, that sounds more like a guy to discard.

But let us now speak about why that’s not the case.

We can begin by giving Harper a break on the problem child thing. Especially regarding his recent criticism of Williams’ managing.

Without getting too far into whether Harper should have kept his mouth shut (he should have) or if he’s right about the Nationals’ optimal lineup (he might be), we can say this: He was making a suggestion for how to make the Nationals better, not for how to make Bryce Harper better. In that moment, he was guilty of giving a damn, not of being a bad guy.

Maybe that sounds off in light of the negative things that have been whispered about Harper’s personality, but it’s not out of left field.

Just a few months ago, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote this: “Fact: Harper is a good kid. Almost everyone around him says so, and they have no reason to lie, not when it’s obviously so easy to pile on. Polite. Generous. Doesn’t drink. Vehemently anti-PED.”

Now, good kids obviously don’t get into feuds with their managers. But if you look past the loudest noise, you’ll find that this is yet another way in which Harper fits the bill.

Williams himself recently told reporters, including CSN Washington’s Mark Zuckerman, that there’s “no rift” between him and Harper. Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post backed that up, writing that the relationship between Harper and Williams is “more nuanced” than it’s been portrayed.

Wrote Kilgore: “Rather, the bumps in their partnership have stemmed from fits of public awkwardness between a first-year manager and a 21-year-old still learning major league life.”

On that point, let’s not pretend like Harper’s major league learning curve is anything ordinary.

As Kilgore went on to note, most players Harper’s age aren’t even major league players, much less the face of a major league franchise. And given the hype that’s been surrounding him since he was a mere 16-year-old, I’ll wager no ballplayer has ever had to deal with a spotlight quite like the one that’s been thrust on Harper. His learning how to properly deal with it was never going to happen quickly. 

The other thing we—and this includes Williams—should give Harper a break on is the hustle thing. 

As easy as it is to recall the times Harper hasn’t hustled on routine plays, it should be at least as easy to recall the times he’s hustled his freakin’ tail off to make plays. The guy’s not a slacker by nature.

Knowing that and the dastardly things hustling has done to his body, he deserves a little more slack in the moments when he chooses not to bust his butt 100 percent.

Besides, you don’t need to run out every single ground ball to be a great player. Robinson Cano can vouch for that, and it’s really quite simple: Hustle looks good, but talent is where greatness comes from.

And nobody should be giving up on Harper’s talent just yet.

Because of how much hype he came into the league with, it’s easy to look at Harper’s first two seasons and be underwhelmed. It’s not like he came into Washington and Mike Trout-ed the place up, after all.

However, he did do things that few other players have done at such young ages. 

As Washington general manager Mike Rizzo put it to Tom Boswell of The Washington Post: “He has not had two ‘good’ seasons. He has had two great seasons—comparable to anything any player has ever had at 19 and 20 years old.”

Rizzo’s right, you know:

Note: For the rate stats, the minimum was set at 450 plate appearances.

By WAR, has Harper as one of the six best players ever through age 20. What Harper did in his age-20 season in 2013 may not look as good as what he did in his age-19 season, but it’s impressive stuff when you remember that he was mostly playing on one good leg.

And lest you think Harper is damaged goods after going through all that, there are a couple things to keep in mind. 

One is that Harper didn’t look at all like damaged goods after he shrugged off his slow start to 2014, as he hit .345 with a .950 OPS in 16 games before his injury. And while he’s been slow to find his form since his return from his thumb injury, with only four hits in 24 at-bats, patience is warranted there.

Harper did the same thing when he came back from his knee injury in 2013, collecting only two hits in his first 21 at-bats. After that, he hit .281 with an .818 OPS in 68 games the rest of the way.

It’s some rough patch Harper has hit. “Sobering” is a good word for it. No doubt about it. 

But it’s not an excuse to jump ship on the idea that he’s a guy to build a franchise around. His personality issues have been overblown. His hustle issues have been overblown. And while his injuries are concerning, any thought that they’ve ruined his talent for good is a stretch.

One for the “had you told me” file, indeed. But a step below that is the “so much for that” file, and Harper’s not ready for that just yet.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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