Bryce Harper has made vast improvements from his Rookie of the Year season in 2012—improvements so great that he's already put his name in the running for early-season National League MVP.
Harper has gotten off to a scorching hot start. Through 34 games, Harper is hitting .297/.387/.619 with 10 home runs, 21 RBI and 22 runs scored. He's on pace to shatter last season's 22 home runs and 59 RBI.
The dreaded "sophomore slump" has not been an issue for the 20-year-old left fielder, as the improvements he made during the offseason have given him an edge against opposing pitchers that has yet to be figured out. While he has plenty of pure talent, there's more to his improvement than just natural skill.
Harper works hard. His teammates and fans see how hard he hustles on the field each game, and he's earned the respect of many because of it. What many people don't see is how hard Harper works off the field. That training and preparation is what's helped him improve so much.
The numbers he's produced thus far aren't just early-season marks. They're here to stay, mostly because of his commitment to getting better.
Might as well tackle the most obvious one first.
Harper learned a lot last season after losing a heart-breaking Game 5 to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. He was a huge reason the Washington Nationals had the best record in baseball, and it was his hustle and hard-nosed style of play that gave the Nationals an identity and model to play by.
As an inexperienced player, Harper probably gained the most from the loss to the Cardinals. He's learned how to handle defeat in one of the most difficult moments of the sport. This has taught him to capitalize on every opportunity possible, but also not to let negatives linger.
Harper is carrying himself better than he did in 2012 as a professional and acting like the team leader the Nationals so desperately need—not to mention the fact that he's currently hitting like the team leader they so desperately need.
A full offseason to dwell on the ups and downs of 2012 was certainly beneficial to the young slugger. By sifting through the bad to focus on the good, Harper has learned that failure is inevitable in baseball. Baseball is the world's most humbling sport, and Harper needed some humility if he was every going to fully capitalize on his potential.
It seems as if he's doing that now.
Denard Span has been a huge help to Harper in 2013.
The Nationals lacked a true leadoff man last season. Jayson Werth filled the role well in the latter portion of the season, but his lack of speed and inability to post a high on-base percentage necessitated a move by general manager Mike Rizzo during the offseason.
Span has brought both speed and consistency to the top of the order. His line of .273/.342/.348 and five steals has had a big impact on a struggling lineup.
Possibly nobody has benefited more than Harper. With somebody ahead of him in the lineup that can get into scoring position, Harper has been given more opportunities to drive in runs and has been given more pitches to hit. The last thing pitchers want to do is throw a ball in the dirt with a runner on second.
Span has also allowed Harper to slide over to left field. In left field, Harper has to expend less energy than he would had he been playing center. The center fielder has to cover much more ground, as well as back up plays to both corner positions.
Harper has benefited immensely from Span.
Increased patience and better plate discipline have given Harper more opportunities to succeed. By taking pitches he shouldn't swing at, Harper has been able to lengthen at-bats and work deeper into counts—obviously resulting in better chances to see hittable pitches.
Per FanGraphs, Harper walked just 9.4 percent of the time in 2012. He's upped that percentage to 13.1 in the early-going of 2013. His strikeout percentage has also improved from 20.1 to 16.8. By increasing walks and cutting down strikeouts, Harper has been able to work more quality at-bats.
His OBP has improved as a result. He's seen a 47-point jump in that category from last season.
This has led to an increase in the number of runs he's scored. A pretty good baserunner with above average speed, Harper scored 98 runs during his rookie season. Having already scored 22 times this season puts him on pace to break that mark and potentially lead the team.
Harper will likely knock himself him quite a few times in 2013, but having a middle-of-the-order hitter lead the team in runs scored would be a great sign for Washington.
A young hitter with patience is a dangerous hitter, and that's exactly what Harper has proven himself to be.
Harper has displayed ridiculous power this season. His fast start has put him on pace to hit over 40 home runs. That's because of his off-the-charts isolated power.
"Isolated power is a measure of a hitter's raw power" (per FanGraphs). To calculate isolated power, all you have to do is subtract a player's batting average from his slugging percentage. This essentially leaves you with a measure of a player's extra bases per at-bat.
Harper's mark of .322 ranks well above the "Excellent" grading FanGraphs gives a .250 ISO. If .250 is excellent, then what is .322? Stupendous? Fantastic? What about just "Harper"?
Regardless, his ISO in 2013 is over 100-points higher than the .206 he posted in 2012 (which still ranks as "Great" according to FanGraphs).
As long as Harper continues to rack up home runs (10), doubles (six) and triples (one), he'll post an exceptional ISO. This is a statistic that will level out as the season progresses (it inflates with hot starts), but this type of pace is a realistic one for Harper.
The beard and hairstyle likely have nothing to do with Harper's improvement, though they do show his maturation from a young, baby-faced rookie to the new, fear-inducing slugger.
Harper has taken big strides in his sophomore season and continues to live up to the expectations placed upon him years before he was even drafted No. 1 overall by the Nationals.
The sky's the limit for Harper in 2013 and beyond. Harper already has plenty of hardware in his trophy case from high school, junior college and his rookie campaign, but he could be adding an MVP award as early as 2013.
The only way that won't happen is if pitchers magically figure out how to get him out. It's been pretty hard thus far.