Bryce Harper’s numbers suggest that he’s struggled so far in 2012. The Syracuse Chiefs outfielder is batting .250 with 1 HR and 3 RBI through April 26th’s doubleheader with the Rochester Red Wings.
For a nineteen-year-old, though, his performance has been nothing short of successful.
The former #1 overall pick was tasked with learning the outfield by the Washington Nationals after they selected him in the 2010 MLB Draft. The Nationals feared that Harper’s knees would undergo wear and tear behind the plate that could shave years off of his professional career. In an effort to justifiably maximize their investment, he was away from his natural position.
Harper has also had to adjust to pitchers in AAA who locate their pitches at a better rate than their AA counterparts.
All things considered, it’s difficult to be concerned with his start if we dig deeper into the statistics.
Through 4/26/12, Harper’s walk rate (walks per PA) is 12.5% and his strikeout rate (strikeouts per PA) is 19.44%. The 2012 Major League averages to date for these statistics are 8.3% and 19.2%, respectively. Additionally, Harper’s 2012 rates are comparable to his numbers at all levels of the Minors. When determining how well a player is faring at the plate, it’s helpful to understand what he’s doing when the ball isn’t in play. His .333 OBP, aided heavily by his above average walk rate, is actually tied for 59th in the International League and he’s not even hitting the ball well.
The most important thing to remember with Harper is that we’re dealing with an extremely small sample size. It’s difficult to become too excited or pessimistic with a player’s batting average or home run total through the end of April. Some guys start slow and others start hot. His 1 HR could be indicative of the cold, rainy conditions that we’ve had this spring. Statistics can be manipulated one way or another to tell us almost anything that we want. If we consider Harper’s tools, it’s easier to understand why his ceiling is so high and his less than dynamite start is perfectly alright.
I was fortunate enough to attend Syracuse’s April 25th game at Rochester. Harper finished 1 for 3 with a run and a walk. He also laid down a sacrifice bunt that resulted in a throwing error.
Certain prospects may have one or two attributes that stand out on a given night. Last season, Desmond Jennings’ speed, Lars Anderson’s eye, and Mauro Gomez’s raw power were impossible to miss.
Harper is special because, unlike any prospect that I’ve ever seen, he makes everything look easy and does it better than anyone else on the field.
Hitting: The hard work that Harper and his father put into his plate approach is readily apparent. Ron Harper used to pitch Bryce bottle caps and red beans to improve his hand-eye coordination. The youngster tracks the ball exceptionally well at the plate and has the patience to lay off of pitches out of the strike zone. In his first at-bat, Harper walked on 6 pitches. He didn’t budge on two offerings down in the zone with two strikes from right-hander Daryl Thompson.
Harper’s quick wrists shined in the 4th inning when he fouled away two pitches before an eventual single to right field. His hands are incredibly fast and his wrists really whip the bat around, making you believe (in the moment) that there isn’t anything he couldn’t foul off.
Harper shifts a lot of weight to his back (left) leg at the plate, allowing his hips and weight to shift forward as he rotates through his swing. The equation is admirable when you take the time to break it down piece by piece because his timing is impeccable. He didn’t look off-balance all night.
Power: Harper’s best attribute at the plate is his power. Scouts grade him at the maximum level, 80/80, and the lofty mark is more than deserved. Harper’s tremendous strength in the lower half of his body allows him to carry balls low in the strike zone to places that don’t seem possible. He flew out to the warning track in right field on 6 pitches to end the 5th inning. The pitch was low in the zone and off the end of his bat but Harper’s quick wrists allowed him to generate incredible speed on the bat head anyway. At the point of contact, it was hard to believe that the ball would carry that deep.
Harper’s bat speed through the zone is really something to see. He fouled off a ball in the 4th inning down the first base line that really got everyone’s attention in the ballpark simply because of how hard he hit it. Scariest of all was that he didn’t even hit the ball square. That changed on the fifth pitch of the at-bat when he pounded the ball so hard into the dirt that 2B Ray Chang didn’t have time to move two steps to his left.
Speed: Harper attempted to steal second base after singling in the 4th inning and showed off his natural speed. He was able to get a good jump off of Thompson and appeared to get in under a high throw from Rochester catcher Drew Butera. He was inexplicably called out but his above-average speed was evident nevertheless. As Harper matures and continues to add bulk, it’s unlikely that he ever develops elite speed. It isn’t outrageous to suggest that he will be a 25-25 player in the beginning of his Major League career, though.
Throw: Harper’s time spent behind the plate allowed him to develop an exceptionally strong arm. He was known for throwing kids out from his knees and his arm has proven to be an asset in the outfield. He didn’t need to make a challenging throw all night but his arm strength was obvious when he warmed up before each inning in left field. His motion is effortless but he gets excellent velocity on the ball. This is without question the best reason to put him in right field once he makes it to the Major Leagues as the throw from right to third base is the most difficult one to make.
Fielding: It’s hard to draw conclusions as he wasn’t tested. He tracked the ball well off the bat in the few chances that he had.
Demeanor: Harper didn’t look phased at all. He was focused in his at-bats and didn’t let his emotions get the best of him when he made an out. He also didn’t give up at the plate regardless of the count.
Overall: Harper is the most impressive position player that I’ve seen in the International League. His effortless approach to the game coupled with his obvious physical gifts make him a very special prospect. The Nationals are cognizant of the fact that he needs seasoning before he can handle Major League starting pitchers who can consistently locate their pitches and throw developed breaking balls. He should find himself in Washington by August at the very latest and appears destined to be an All-Star down the line.
I saw a composed young player who understood his responsibilities. He signed autographs pre-game and did a great job of picking out the younger kids who were waiting for him. He was composed all night and never got too high or too low regardless of the situation.
Take all of his physical gifts away and you’re left with a nineteen-year-old kid playing professional baseball. He’s dealing with extremely high expectations and has done so for the better part of his teenage years.
Every teenager does something stupid at one point or another. He blew a kiss to an opposing starting pitcher.
Every teenager is going to say stupid things, too. According to his critics, his quotes come off as arrogant and cocky. “How dare he talk about the Hall of Fame before he even registers an at-bat in the Major Leagues,” they say. It seems to me that he’s just being honest, something that our athletes rarely give us. Quotes are seemingly pulled from a Rolodex and spewed back to the media. Harper is raw and we don’t really know how to handle it.
My advice? Take the good with the bad. Shrug off the things that he says that catch you off guard.
At the end of the day, he’s just a kid living out our dream: playing professional baseball. I know I couldn’t handle it flawlessly at 19 and it’s unrealistic to expect it from him.
- Thomas Saucke