Just a Bit Outside: On Bryce Harper, baseball's most polarizing superstar

by Sam Stockton | 4/17/17 2:20am

By now, the baseball and sporting worlds are both familiar with Bryce Harper. He was introduced to the world as a 16-year-old high school student anointed by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci as “baseball’s LeBron.” He debuted in the majors in 2012 at just 19 years old. The chosen one had arrived. Now 24, Harper has piled up the accolades: National League Rookie of the Year, an NL MVP award, a Silver Slugger and four trips to the All-Star Game. In 2015, Harper became what he’d always been advertised as, a true superstar. That was his MVP season, but it came during an underachieving 83-79 season for his Washington Nationals.

In the offseason, the Nats picked up second baseman Daniel Murphy from their division rival, the New York Mets, and the two sluggers appeared poised to make up the heart of a formidable Nationals lineup. Harper showed his characteristic confidence and swagger when he addressed the media on Opening Day, wearing a hat that read “Make Baseball Fun Again.” The Nats won 95 games in 2016, but after a hot start, Harper could not keep up his MVP form. His .243 batting average, .373 on-base percentage and .441 slugging percentage were significant regressions from his MVP campaign. His home run total fell from 42 to 24.

It has become impossible not to talk about Harper’s impending free agency following the 2018 season. Speculation is rampant that Harper will leave Washington and sign with his boyhood team. What team did a kid from Las Vegas, Nevada grow up rooting for, you ask? The New York Yankees. Even with his drop in numbers last season, Harper will more than likely command the largest contract in baseball’s history, and the Yankees would be an obvious choice to give it to him. At this point, Harper to the Bronx Bombers may be the most “called” event in sports history. If we do end up seeing him donning Yankee pinstripes at a winter press conference in New York, everyone from ESPN talking heads to the guy at the end of the bar will be quick to point out that he saw it coming.

In a way, all of this adds up to the perfect storm for us to loathe Harper. His biography seems to have every ingredient that stokes hatred in Joe Sports Fan. First, there’s the LeBron James comparison. Any kind of connection to James does not play well with American sports audiences, and Harper’s is no exception. He has always been one to speak his mind, and the “make baseball fun again” campaign was just one example of his ability to attract attention beyond the diamond. Naturally, these incidents have encouraged national Harper hatred. Many baseball fans admire mild-mannered Mike Trout, who to them is an old-school ballplayer who worked his way to greatness. To those fans, Harper is just a flashy underachiever. The prospect of abandoning his team through free agency and signing with baseball’s ultimate bad guys has done little to quell the hate storm directed at the one-time prodigy, who I remind you is just 24 years old.

I say all this not to demonize Harper but to point out the prevailing narratives surrounding the young outfielder. These narratives, however, miss the two aspects that should endear Harper to all baseball fans.

The first is his swing. While Harper throws righty, he hits left-handed, and his stroke cuts through the strike zone as fiercely as any in the league. The swing is the perfect combination of violent and compact — short to the ball but immensely powerful. That swing has many moving parts, and perhaps that is why he struggled to get back on track once he began slumping in 2016. Harper’s at-bats are must-watch events regardless of where the ball goes. Seeing the torque he generates swinging a bat is remarkable.

Like Ted Williams, he has a slight uppercut, and while the ball may not be necessary for his swing to entertain, it sure doesn’t hurt. Between his raw strength, violent swing and that uppercut, Harper can put any pitch he sees into the upper deck.

In addition to the swing, the way Harper plays the game is special. He is the closest thing to Pete Rose we’ve seen in baseball since the controversial hit king retired in 1986. Rose is known to the latest generation of baseball fans for the controversy surrounding his potential induction to the Hall of Fame. To those who watched Rose though, his legacy is as “Charlie Hustle,” a player who played the game hard no matter what. Fans who watched the 1970 All-Star Game will never forget Rose running over Ray Fosse to score the game’s winning run.

Harper plays with that same fire. He flies around the bases — if there’s an extra base to be taken, Harper will take it. He runs hard. He never shows fear on the diamond despite frequently being the least senior player on it. No matter the team they root for, Major League Baseball fans have to love this relentless intensity on the diamond.

While I don’t pretend to know if Harper will be able to play 162 games of great baseball this season, he is off to a strong start. Harper is an easy player to hate, but he brings plenty to the table baseball fans should love. I urge you, for every time you criticize him for his arrogance, praise him for his hustle. When he strikes out at a big moment, admire the powerful stroke he used to try to make something happen.