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Bryce Harper: 15 Things to Love About the Washington Nationals Rookie Phenom

Kevin StottSenior Analyst IMay 7, 2012

Bryce Harper: 15 Things to Love About the Washington Nationals Rookie Phenom

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    Bryce Harper has only played eight games since being called up by the Washington Nationals last weekend, but the high-profile rookie has already shown why there's such a big fuss being made about this 19-year-old phenom.

    Three years ago Sports Illustrated introduced Harper to the world when it made the then 15-year-old high school freshman from Las Vegas its cover boy and told the world the story of a kid who was hitting 517-foot home runs, which were landing in the Mojave Desert.

    Harper, who has said his immediate goal is to not repeatedly be called up to the majors and then sent back down to the minors, has made a solid case for staying on the Nationals roster by hitting .308 with five doubles, three runs batted in, a .424 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage since his arrival.

    So can he live up to the hype? And can he continue this hot start? Time will tell, but I have 15 simple reasons why Harper will be the rookie to watch in 2012 and a player we all talk about for quite some time.

His Age

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    At 19, Harper is not only the youngest player in Major League Baseball, but would also the youngest player at the Triple-A level. That’s absolutely insane.

    Reminiscent of other MLB teen phenoms like Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, Harper has been playing and dedicating his life to baseball—I wrote a story that had him in it when he was just an 11-year-old playing for the Southern Nevada Bulldogs—under the tutelage of his father Ron and some extremely influential coaches.

    Harper excelled as a catcher at Las Vegas High School where his impressive numbers as a freshman (.599/11/67) were eclipsed as a sophomore (.626/14/55) when he was named the 2009 Baseball America High School Player of the Year and quickly shot into the national spotlight.

    After his sophomore year, Harper earned his GED, making him eligible for the June 2010 amateur draft where he was taken as the No. 1 overall pick by the Nationals who signed the 17-year-old to a five-year, $9.9 million contract with a sweet little $6.25 million signing bonus.

    Harper then enrolled at the nearby College of Southern Nevada in the Scenic West Athletic Conference in the NJCAA—one of the few conferences in college baseball that still uses wooden bats—where he hit 31 home runs to break the school record, drove in 98 runs and batted a torrid .443 in 66 games.

    His accomplishments at CSN helped him be named the 2010 SWAC Player of the Year and the 2010 Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the the best amateur baseball player.

    So from the time Harper first picked up a baseball bat until today, he has been as accomplished as any other player to play the game.

    And at 19, Harper still has plenty of room to continue growing and will only get better at the sport as he matures as both an athlete and a human being.

His Idols and His Attitude

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    Proving Harper is quite the student of the game, he has revealed his baseball idols are Mantle and Pete Rose, two old school players that had long been retired before he was even born.

    To pay homage to Mantle, who Harper patterns his game after, the Nationals rookie wears the No. 34, and said, "I always loved Mickey Mantle. Three and four equals seven."

    Harper is unable to wear Washington’s No. 7 jersey because teammate Mark DeRosa now has it. Though, few would be surprised if somewhere down the line the Wunderkind gets it.

    Showing a little bit of Rose’s game in his own, Harper flipped the helmet off his head while running to second base during his first MLB hit, a double against the Dodgers in his debut.

    And that extra-base hit was just the fourth by a teenager making his big league debut since 1969, putting him in good company with Griffey, Jr.

    So patterning your game after Mantle and Rose and playing in every game like it's your last shows this five-tool kid has his on-the-field priorities right.

His Haircut

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    Simmer down for god’s sake. I’m just kidding brother. No need to get your panties in a bunch over a silly slide show panel on a sports website now is there? And if a balding middle-aged writer can’t tease a young buck with a full head of healthy hair, then who in the name of Bieber can he tease?

    Although it has nothing to do with his play on the diamond, this is certainly one area in which Mr. Harper hasn’t received the best career advice.

    A bizarre cross between a shaved coconut and Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap, Harper’s skullet even has Donald Trump laughing at him.

His Arm

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    Two weeks into his professional baseball career, Harper has done more with his arm in the outfield than some players do over an entire season.

    Against the Dodgers in his debut, Harper made a perfect throw home to his catcher to try and get a runner out trying to score from second base only to have his catcher Wilson Ramos have the ball knocked loose out of his glove by Jerry Hairston.

    In Harper’s home debut at Nationals Park against the Diamondbacks, he made another perfect throw home on a sacrifice fly only to have umpire Jeff Nelson call the runner tagging from third base, John McDonald, safe. The above YouTube video shows Nelson obviously made a bad call.

    And in that same Arizona series, on a fly ball to center and with another runner on third in position to tag up, Harper’s new reputation preceded him. The runner didn’t even budge, and the throw arrived at home plate on a fly as if the baseball was launched by a human catapult.

    No surprise for a kid who routinely threw out runners from his knees as a catcher and was clocked at 96 mph on the radar gun as a 15-year-old high schooler. Scary.

His Baseball IQ

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    When Harper was knee-high to a grasshopper, his steelworker father, Ron, used to throw beans at him to improve his hand-eye coordination, and he would practice with his older brother Bryan, a left-handed pitcher (University of South Carolina) who was good enough to also be drafted by the Nationals.

    And with idols like Mantle and Rose, a great prep coach in Sam Thomas (Las Vegas High) and a top-notch college coach in Tim Chambers (CSN), Harper can’t help but know a little more than something about the game of baseball.

    But being a competitive teen in the mold of Rose, Harper has also had his share of issues on the field.

    In a NJCAA World Series game in 2010, Harper drew a line in the dirt indicating where he thought a pitch he was called out on crossed the plate—a big no-no in baseball and was promptly ejected from the game by home plate umpire Don Gilmore.

    Harper was suspended for two games, and his Coyotes went on to lose the series without their big gun and most famous player in school history.

    Showing how he has matured a bit since the incident, Harper calmly walked back to the Nationals dugout after his first big league strikeout in his second MLB game at Los Angeles.

    All in all, this 19-year-old really knows the game: the situations, when to go for that extra base, what pitches to swing at and where to play the hitters. That can only serve him well in the future.

His Value to the Sport

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    Harper’s immediate contributions to baseball are quite evident.

    With fellow future superstar teammate Stephen Strasburg and the team playing its best baseball ever, Harper and the Nationals are suddenly a force to be reckoned with. They are presently tied with the Dodgers and Rangers with the third best record in MLB.

    And Harper’s popularity means attendance increases on the road, higher television ratings, more print articles and more Internet views because.

    Another industry being affected by Harper’s rise—and profiting from his recent popularity—is the baseball card market where Harper’s rookie cards are now selling for as high as $700 (Autographed 2011 Bowman Prospect, gem mint condition) on eBay.

    That’s the price of some used cars, Melvin.

    No telling what the value of that card will be six months from now should Harper be named the National League Rookie of the Year.

His Team

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    One good reason to like Harper is that the team he is on, which has won eight of its nine series this season, is certainly on the upswing.

    The Nationals have started out 18-10 (first place in the NL East) and 12-4 at home in Washington, D.C. With the aforementioned Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse, DeRosa, Jason Werth, Rick Ankiel, Brad Lidge and Gio Gonzalez, the team is young, talented and hungry enough to make the playoffs for the first time in club history.

    Showing its faith in their budding superstar, Washington moved Harper from the No. 7 to the No. 3 spot in the batting lineup last week—a spot reserved for a team’s best hitter.

    "If I'm hitting two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight or nine it doesn't really matter," Harper said.  "It doesn't change the way I'm going to go up there and play."

His Swing

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    Those dubbing Harper “The Natural” obviously like what they see in his oh-so smooth swing as shown in the link here.

    Similar to Griffey, Jr., the 6'3", 225-pound left-handed hitter has a long, sweeping swing, perfect for the power hitter he is quite capable of becoming in MLB.

    And somewhere now, Ted Williams is smiling—but probably not from the mouth of his cryogenically frozen head at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Ariz.

His Power

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    Harper showed off his power in Sin City, hitting a 570-foot blast as a freshman in high school. Then, a year later, he blasted the longest home run in the history of Tropicana Field, a 502-foot moonshot in the Power Showcase, which would have gone farther if not for the back wall of the domed Juice Box.

    It’s only a matter of time until you’re seeing some of Harper’s dingers on SportsCenter and YouTube. This kid has unbelievable power.

His Eye

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    An overlooked aspect of the Harper’s game is his phenomenal discipline at the plate.

    Making pitchers pitch to you is something that usually takes time at baseball’s highest level, but this rookie has already shown he has it with five walks in his first eight games.

    And this “heat chart” from ESPN’s Mark Simon from Harper’s debut reveals his eye at the plate is incredibly refined for the youngest player in the big leagues.

His Future

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    "The man of genius inspires us with a boundless confidence in our own powers.”                      
       —Ralph Waldo Emerson


    When asked of his goals in baseball, Harper said “(I want to) be considered the greatest baseball player who ever lived.”

    A very lofty goal for a teenager but I’m sure Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Babe Ruth probably had similar ambitions when they were just teenagers too.

    Harper also said he’d like to play with the Yankees, but the Nationals know they have a player to build a franchise around in him and would do everything in their power to keep him. Although with sparse attendance right now, they could very well lose him to free agency somewhere down the line.

    So Harper in pinstripes as a Bronx Bomber could happen, and imagine the media attention he would get playing in the Big Apple for one of the most storied franchises in sports history.

    And think about it. If Harper plays 20 years until the age of 39, it will be 2032. And you and I will surely look back at this time as “the good old days.”

His Versatility

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    Harper started out as a catcher in high school and at CSN, but Nationals management figured he could play much longer and sustain less injuries by playing in the outfield.

    In his first game, Harper filled in for an injured Werth in center field but is now playing left field where he will likely stay for awhile.

    With all his versatility, Harper could end up filling in at catcher occasionally and may end up at first base later in his career should he slow down or incur any injuries.

    It happens once in a great while—the Tigers Shane Halter last did it in 2010—but it wouldn’t surprise if somewhere down the road Harper ended up playing all nine positions in a single game.

His Ability to Rise to the Occasion

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    Harper showed he can be clutch in his MLB debut by giving Washington a momentary lead at Los Angeles with a sacrifice fly and his first RBI before Matt Kemp sealed the deal with a home run for the Dodgers.

    And he’s shown it in the outfield with his arm trying to cut down or intimidate runners trying to score at crucial points in his first eight games.

    But Harper really showed how he can get it done when it most matters with CSN in the Western district finals in 2010 NJCAA World Series where he went 6-for-7 with five RBIs and hit for the cycle in one game, went 2-for-5 with a three-run double in the first game of a doubleheader the next day and in the second game went a mind-boggling 6-for-6 with four home runs, a triple and a double.

    That’s 14-for-18 with five home runs in the span of two days for the Coyotes in the games that mattered the most. Legendary stuff.

His Defense

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    While Harper’s arm strength has already been highlighted, defense in baseball is also about covering ground quickly, taking the right route to balls and being courageous enough to dive and sometimes even crash into walls.

    The Nationals teen showed the latter in just his second MLB game when he robbed the Dodgers Juan Uribe with a brilliant catch running into the center field wall in just his second game in Dodger Stadium and playing a position he is somewhat unfamiliar with.

    It’s simple. There are no real weaknesses in Harper’s physical game, and if he can continue to learn to control his temper and avoid injury, we may be talking about the phenom for a long, long time.

His Speed and Hustle

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    Athletes have a wide range of speed—from John Daly to Usain Bolt—but players near the top of that range on the diamond can get to fly balls others can’t, cut balls off before they go through gaps, steal bases and leg out hits that would be outs for others.

    In high school, Harper showed this value, as he scored numerous times from second base on wild pitches. And on his first MLB hit at home, a double high off the right field wall at Nationals Park, Harper was already standing on second base when the right fielder threw the ball in, whereas most players just be coasting or rushing to second base.

    Making his national television debut on ESPN on Sunday night against the Phillies, Harper showed that speed and hustle after getting hit by a pitch in his first at-bat by Philadelphia starter Cole Hamels.

    Harper cruised into third after a single by Werth and then shocked the world by stealing home on a pick-off throw by Hamels to first base, making him the first teenager to achieve the feat since Ed Kirkpatrick in 1964.

    But strangely enough, out of all the things I’ve seen from Harper in his first two weeks in the bigs, one of the things that impressed me the most was his first at-bat.

    On a simple grounder back to the pitcher against the Dodgers, a play that never results in a base runner being safe unless the pitcher or first baseman make an error, Harper ran as if a tiger was chasing him down the first base line. He ran through the base, leaning forward like Bolt at the wire at the end of a 100-meter dash.

    Just a simple tap back to the mound. A boring out. But to me, this is proof that this kid will hustle throughout his MLB career and will be as exciting a player as there is to watch in the game.

    Stay tuned.

Conclusion

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    Seldom do teenagers get the kind of press Harper has—outside of Justin Bieber or maybe Britney Spears back in the day—but the whirlwind surrounding him has been so enormous that he has already had a book written about him.

    Former Las Vegas Sun writer Rob Miech followed Harper around for a year and his book, The Last Natural: Bryce Harper's Big Gamble in Sin City and the Greatest Amateur Season Ever will be coming out on June 5.

    Not too shabby for a kid who won’t be able to legally have a drink until Oct. 16, 2013, eh?



    Follow me on Twitter: @KevinStott11

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