Appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16 had a lot to do with that. The copious amounts of eye black smeared on his cheeks didn't earn him much admiration. Nor did the brash attitude that compelled him to blow a kiss at a pitcher after hitting a home run in Single-A ball.
After one year of minor-league ball, during which he progressed to Double-A Hagerstown, the hope was that Harper would break spring training with the Washington Nationals. But Harper was sent to Triple-A Syracuse, primarily so he could learn to play center field. Everyone thought it was only a matter of time before he was called up, however.
At the end of April, the inevitable happened. The Nationals were desperate for offense—any offense—from their outfield and called up the 19-year-old Harper.
It seemed like a terribly desperate move by Nats general manager Mike Rizzo at the time. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Harper was only hitting .243 with one home run in 84 plate appearances. Was Rizzo buying into the hype too?
Yet Harper never looked overwhelmed by major-league competition, never seemed like he was overmatched. He hit .271 with an .860 OPS, four home runs and 10 RBI in May.
Controversy also seemed to swarm toward him like ants toward spilled soda.
Cole Hamels plunked him with a pitch in early May, admitting that he did it to take the rookie down a notch in a "welcome to the big leagues, kid" moment.
Just over a month later, a Toronto radio reporter asked Harper if he might enjoy a postgame adult beverage on the town since he was of legal drinking age in Canada. Resenting the attempt to get him in trouble, Harper's response—"That's a clown question, bro"—became an Internet meme almost instantly.
Soon thereafter, the Nats rookie outfielder was a surprise choice for the National League All-Star team, named as a replacement for the injured Giancarlo Stanton. Harper became the youngest position player to ever make an All-Star team. The hype machine continued to churn.
Despite hitting the skids in July and August, Harper continued to receive more attention than his fellow NL rookies, something that irked many fans. Perhaps those fans didn't like Harper to begin with. But with other first-year players like Wade Miley, Todd Frazier and Wilin Rosario having strong seasons, the assertion that Harper was receiving unwarranted hype had some merit to it.
Harper, however, came back strong in September to help lead the Nationals' charge to a playoff spot and NL East title. During the season's final full month, the rookie hit .330/.402/.651 with eight doubles, seven homers and 14 RBI. It was his easily his best monthly performance of the season and likely put him back into strong consideration for the NL Rookie of the Year award.
The Harper hype machine is once again running strong. But how much momentum could it gain now that he and the Nationals will be in the playoffs? More reporters and broadcaster will be covering a far smaller number of teams. Each postseason game is nationally televised. Harper is about to walk onto baseball's biggest stage.
How will Harper handle the increased attention and scrutiny? It's not going to faze him. He fits right in because he acts like he belongs. Call him up to the majors? No biggie. Send him to the All-Star Game? There he is.
Harper believes he belongs with the top players in MLB. Harper believes he should be competing for a World Series championship because that's what the best players do. The lights won't be too bright. He's going to thrive in the postseason.
Depending on how the Nationals finish the season and who wins the wild-card playoff, they could face either the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants. Harper has hit well against each of those teams.
In 76 plate appearances vs. the Braves, the rookie compiled an .816 OPS with four home runs and five RBI. Against the Cardinals, he batted .429 with a 1.284 OPS with two homers and six RBI in 31 PAs. If the Nats face the Giants, Harper carries a .286 average and .703 OPS from 30 PAs into that playoff series.
Three weeks ago, I wrote that Harper was poised for an Andruw Jones-like breakout. In 1996, a 19-year-old Jones served notice to MLB and the sports-watching public that he was going to be an emerging force in baseball for years to come.
Harper appears to be getting better later in the year when the games matter more to playoff contenders. The grind of the long major-league season likely wore him down in July and August. But maybe he was also waiting for the stakes to get higher during his first pennant race. Now Harper will be in the playoffs where every game is important.
If you thought Harper was hyped before, wait until a contingent of fans who haven't watched baseball until the playoffs see him in action. Wait until every major newspaper and sports website who sent writers to cover Harper write features on him.
And if he makes a big impact for the Nationals, watch out. Because the hype won't matter anymore. Harper will be perceived as a legitimate star, not just a product of excessive media attention.
If you're already sick of Harper, you may want to avoid the Nationals' playoff games. But don't do that, because you might deprive yourself of seeing something special.
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