Has any rookie in recent memory been hyped up as much as Bryce Harper?
As a 16-year-old in 2009, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, billed as "Baseball's LeBron." He was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft when he was 17.
Even after only one full season in the minors, the expectation was for Harper to be with the Washington Nationals quickly. It was a disappointment when he didn't make the major-league team out of spring training this year and the Nats assigned him to Triple-A Syracuse.
But Harper couldn't be kept from the majors and his inevitable stardom for very long. By the end of April, the Nationals were desperate for offense from their outfield and decided to call up their top prospect. Was he capable of giving the Nats the boost they needed?
Almost from the beginning, the answer was yes.
In May—his first full month in MLB—Harper hit .271 with an .860 OPS. He contributed five doubles, four triples, four home runs and 10 RBI. Those doubles and triples demonstrated Harper's aggressiveness on the basepaths. He was there to make something happen and was doing just that.
But Harper continued to attract hype for more than his performance. Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels hit him with a pitch to "welcome him to the big leagues." Rather than get intimidated or taken off his game, Harper made his way around the bases and eventually stole home plate. Welcome to the big leagues, indeed.
Just over a month later, the Nationals were playing the Toronto Blue Jays. After a game, a Toronto radio reporter asked Harper if he was going to take advantage of Canada's 19-year-old drinking age limit. Harper didn't take the bait, instead giving us one of the best quotes of the season: "That's a clown question, bro."
Yes, Harper was getting more attention than any other rookie. But the spotlight didn't seem to affect him one bit.
Harper did appear to hit the rookie wall in July and August, however. Maybe it was the constant attention, the level of competition or the everyday rigors of playing in the majors. But Harper didn't look overwhelmed. He didn't look run down.
What happened was that opposing teams learned how to pitch to him. Left-handers with good off-speed stuff particularly seemed to vex him.
For a young player having success, it was a typical test. Let's see how the kid hits the curveball. He didn't see those kinds of pitches—curves, sliders, sinkers and cutters—at the junior-college or minor-league level.
It was at that point where many—especially the fans—began to wonder if Harper was more a product of hype than production.
Wade Miley of the Arizona Diamondbacks was emerging as the top rookie starting pitcher and the best pitcher in his starting rotation. While his strikeout totals may not have been impressive, his low walk rate showed that he was pounding the strike zone. Most importantly, he just wasn't allowing many runs.
The Cincinnati Reds' Todd Frazier established himself as a strong pinch-hitter and valuable reserve early in the season. When third baseman Scott Rolen was sidelined with injury, Frazier showed himself to be the better player. It was after Joey Votto went out with a knee injury, however, that the Reds saw Frazier's true value, as he provided a productive bat at first base.
But Frazier slumped badly in September, likely suffering from a lack of playing time as Rolen and Votto returned to the lineup and manager Dusty Baker got them ready for the playoffs. He hit .176 with a .491 OPS, one home run and five RBI.
Miley also struggled in the season's final month. In six starts, he compiled a 5.40 ERA. Though his strikeouts went up, so did his walks. That may have indicated that Miley was getting out of his comfort zone, trying to get hitters to miss rather than let them hit the ball.
Meanwhile, Harper pushed through that rookie wall and became one of the Nationals' best hitters as they made a run for the playoffs and the best record in the NL. During September, he hit .330 with a 1.043 OPS. He also accumulated eight doubles, seven home runs and 14 RBI.
It was Harper's best month by far, with the kid putting up those numbers at the end of the season, when the stakes were the highest for a playoff contender.
While Harper didn't lead NL rookies in any particular category, his overall numbers were the best among his position-player peers. His .270 batting average tied for seventh and his .340 on-base percentage ranked sixth.
Perhaps most importantly for the Nationals, Harper ended up providing the thump he was called up to the majors to supply. His .477 slugging percentage ranked third among the league's first-year players, while his .817 OPS was fourth.
With 22 home runs, Harper finished with the second-highest total among NL rookies and third on the Nationals. For a team that was without Michael Morse until June and Jayson Werth from May through August, he gave the Nats what they wanted and more.
Once manager Davey Johnson decided to bat Harper second in the lineup, the Nationals had a player who could hit with power high in the order and score with aggressive baserunning. Harper scored 98 runs, the highest rookie total in the NL. Oh, and it led the Nationals this season.
Harper got more attention than any other rookie because he was a curiosity and a phenomenon. However, he was never a disappointment.
Perhaps no player could have matched the sky-high expectations set for him ever since that June 8, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated was published. But he came close, beginning what looks to be a superstar career in MLB.
That's why Harper is the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year.
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