Harper still impressing teammates
This is the second time I’ve come to Nationals Park to write about Bryce Harper. And once again, my notebook is so full, I don’t even know where to start.
The last time, I wrote that there was no chance the Nationals would send Harper back to the minor leagues, an opinion that could have been formulated by a chimpanzee.
This time, I’m not going with a set theme. No, I’m going with a Bryce-a-palooza, complete with teammates’ favorite Harper stories, a revised look at Harper’s supposed “bad” attitude, Harper’s thoughts on fellow prodigy Mike Trout and a stat that will blow you away.
Shall we begin?
Harper, 19, is a veteran of 34 major league games. Yet, when I ask five different Nationals to name their favorite Harper moment, I get five different answers.
Here are the three best:
• Shortstop Ian Desmond mentions Harper’s reaction to getting hit by Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels on May 6.
“He just brushed it off,” Desmond says. “It was, ‘I got hit. So what? Hamels is a great pitcher. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. Next question, please.’ ”
• Left fielder Michael Morse raves about the way Harper “forgets” his last at-bat, citing his first walkoff hit, Tuesday night against the Mets.
Harper struck out swinging in the 11th inning, then lined his game-winning, opposite-field hit in the 12th on an 0-2 count with two outs and the bases loaded.
“He had a pretty bad at-bat, struck out, looked bad, fooled every pitch,” Morse says. “He came out his next at-bat and won the game. That’s something that takes years to learn.
• Closer Drew Storen, without hesitation, says his favorite Harper moment, “hands down,” occurred in Atlanta on May 26.
Harper hit a routine single to right, then kept running to second when the Braves’ Jason Heyward mishandled the ball nonchalantly in right field.
“It’s one of my favorite things I’ve seen since being in the big leagues,” Storen said. “Nobody does that.
“It’s a casual base hit. He could have just gotten to first, taken a hard, nice turn and nobody would have said a word. They would have said, ‘Nice job.’ But he took the initiative, was aggressive and took second base.
“Guys feed off that. That’s what gets him respect being a young guy — the way he plays. It’s not too much. It’s refreshing — refreshing to see a guy that young, with that much talent, play that hard.”
Remember all those stories about the brash Harper, the cocky Harper, the arrogant Harper who was supposed to receive a rough initiation from his opponents, and not just Hamels?
Whatever happened to that guy?
I posed that question to Harper on Wednesday after he said this about his initial adjustment to the majors:
“I didn’t try to put any pressure on myself. I just tried to play my game, keep as quiet as I can, let my play talk.
“I didn’t want to come in here and say, ‘Hey, I’m big, bad Bryce Harper.’ I’m another guy in the clubhouse, trying to have every single day, listen to all the veteran guys in this clubhouse.”
So, was it unfair for people to question his attitude?
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman contends that Harper’s reputation developed because he was the “first (player) to really go through social media, where people who aren’t qualified to have an opinion, have an opinion.”
Harper, though, admits that he brought some of the problems upon himself.
“I took situations a little too far in college,” Harper says, referring to his one year at the College of Southern Nevada, when he was 17.
“That’s how it is. That fire, that passion you get in college, I think everybody has it. Everybody looked at me, ‘He’s got eye-black all over his face.’ They didn’t really look at the game side. They looked at other things.
“I play this game hard. That’s what you’re going to get out of me every single day.”
That’s what the Nationals love about him, and that’s what opponents respect. Not even Hamels claimed to be offended by Harper. He hit him, well, just because.
Harper’s supposed bad attitude is not a talking point in the Mets’ clubhouse after Wednesday’s game, hasn’t been a talking point since his major-league debut on April 28.
Mets outfielder Scott Hairston talks about Harper’s “mature” two-strike approach and “amazing bat speed.” Mets manager Terry Collins says, “He’s going to put up huge numbers in this game — huge numbers.”
And he’s going to do it his way.
The right way.
“When you’re confident and play the game hard and you’re so competitive that you don’t feel bad for other people, people don’t always take that the right away,” Storen says.
“If you bury people, and you play hard … he’s not out here to make friends. That’s what’s good. He’s here to win.”
Speaking of friends, Harper says he knows Trout, his American League doppelganger, “pretty well.” The two actually were teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League after last season ended.
The Scorpions also featured another top young major leaguer, Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and a third top young outfielder, Giants Double A outfielder Gary Brown.
Does Harper keep tabs on Trout, who at 20 is a year older than him?
“Definitely,” Harper says. “I wish all the best to him.
“He wasn’t at full strength (in the AFL). He was tired. He had played a lot of baseball. I don’t think everybody saw the full intensity of Trout out there.
“But I knew he would be an unbelievable talent. You can see it now. He’s having a great year. He’s turned that Angels season into a winner. I’m excited for him.”
I ask Harper if he is aware of the big question among scouts and executives: If you were starting a franchise, would you pick Harper, Trout or Giancarlo Stanton?
Harper seems surprised that Stanton is included in the conversation, and maybe the Marlins’ right fielder shouldn’t be.
I mean, Stanton is so much older than Harper and Trout. He’s 22!
“I haven’t really seen Stanton’s name in there,” Harper says. “Stanton, he hits some bombs. He has the most pop I’ve seen around. He’s done a lot. He’s fun to watch — very fun to watch.
“I just try to come out here and play my game. Trout’s in the other league. I’m trying to play my game. He’s playing his game. Who knows? Maybe we’ll play together one day. Maybe he’ll come to DC.”
“I don’t want to leave here, I can tell you that.”
I promised a stat that would blow you away, and it is indeed a doozy.
Harper entered Wednesday night’s play with a .903 OPS, though it dropped to .884 when he went 1-for-5.
So, I asked my friends at STATS LLC to research the last time a player at 19 produced a .900 OPS, minimum 400 plate appearances.
A player’s “season age” is his age as of July 1. Harper turns 20 on Oct. 16. If he stays healthy for the rest of the season, he should easily reach 400 plate appearances.
Anyway, the list of players who had 400 PAs in their age 19 season isn’t all that long. The list of players who had a .900 OPS is even shorter.
In fact, it consists of one name.
That’s it. And Ott’s OPS for the New York Giants, way back in 1928, was .921.
What if we expand the list to include 20-year-olds, considering that Trout currently is sitting on a .924 OPS?
Ott, 1929, 1.084.
Ted Williams, 1939, 1.045.
Alex Rodriguez, 1996, 1.045.
Al Kaline, 1955, .967.
Jimmie Foxx, 1928, .964.
Frank Robinson, 1956, .937.
Mickey Mantle, 1952, .924.
Six Hall of Famers plus A-Rod, who was a mortal lock for the Hall before acknowledging that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.
That’s what we’re talking about here.
Fun to watch. Fun to write about. Fun for hopefully a long, long time.