After appearing to hit the rookie wall in July, Bryce Harper's game is kicking back into gear during September.
The Washington Nationals outfielder is hitting .341/.431/.659 with three doubles, a triple, three home runs and four RBI as of Sept. 13.
That surge has raised his season batting average to .262 and his OPS to .788, the highest those numbers have been for Harper since late July. Harper's 18 home runs are tied for the third-highest total among major league rookies. His .788 OPS ranks eighth.
Harper's resurgence comes at an excellent time for the Nationals, who are on the verge of clinching their first playoff spot since the team moved to D.C. eight years ago. If he continues his strong play into October, could Harper have the best postseason we've seen from a 19-year-old rookie since Andruw Jones' breakout performance of 1996?
Watching an older, slower Jones at the end of his career as he bounces around the majors, journeyman-style, it can be difficult to remember that he was a 19-year-old rookie sensation for the Atlanta Braves in 1996.
Though he hit .217 with a .709 OPS in 31 games that season, Jones did hit five home runs with seven doubles and 13 RBI, showing he could be a run producer in the Braves lineup.
Jones didn't perform impressively as Atlanta progressed through the NL Divisional series and Championship series. But against the New York Yankees in the World Series, he emerged as a potential future superstar.
In his first World Series at-bat, Jones became the youngest player to ever hit a home run in the Fall Classic by taking Andy Pettitte deep for a two-run shot in the second inning of Game 1. In the third inning, Jones hit another homer, this one a three-run blast off Brian Boehringer that gave the Braves an 8-0 lead.
Jones became only the second player in major league history to hit home runs in his first two World Series at-bats (Gene Tenace was the other to do so).
For the series, Jones hit .400/.500/.750 with two homers and six RBI in 24 plate appearances. It was the beginning of a promising career that saw Jones develop into one of the best center fielders in MLB from 1997 to 2007. The Nationals would surely be thrilled if Harper's career followed a similar path.
Harper is on track to end his rookie season on a far stronger note than Jones did in 1996. During September of his first year in the majors, Jones hit .179/.233/.286 with one home run and eight RBI in 60 plate appearances. As mentioned above, Harper has already exceeded those numbers with his performance this September.
The Nats' 19-year-old rookie phenom will also get plenty more opportunities to put up numbers in the early rounds of the playoffs than Jones did in 1996.
Jones had only 13 plate appearances in the NLDS and NLCS. Harper figures to see far more time at the plate than that, as manager Davey Johnson isn't going to take him out of the lineup. Harper has been entrenched in the No. 2 spot of the Nationals lineup since Johnson moved him there in early May.
Jones also batted second the majority of his rookie season, but he was moved down in the lineup during the postseason by manager Bobby Cox.
Johnson probably isn't going to tinker with his batting order in similar fashion during the Nationals playoff run. He kept Harper in the No. 2 spot throughout his July and August slump, preferring to keep him in front of batters like Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse.
If the Nationals make it to the World Series, the bigger stage and media frenzy surely won't faze Harper. He's been followed by the press since Sports Illustrated put him on its cover when he was 16 years old. He's shown he has no time for media nonsense with his "clown question" response.
Harper played in the All-Star Game this season. He's acted like he belongs in the major leagues ever since he was called up from the minors. Nothing seems to overwhelm him.
It's possible that one of the reasons Harper struggled in July and August was because the season is so long. That's not to say he got bored, but the long grind of the season likely got to him. Now that the regular season is nearing its end and the stakes become higher as the playoffs approach, is it a coincidence that Harper is playing well again?
Harper's detractors think that he's a product of media hype. There's obviously some truth to that, as Harper gets far more attention than his fellow rookies. But the attention will be justified during the playoffs. And if he's able to succeed in the way Jones did in 1996, his legend will grow even larger.
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