Is Bryce Harper's Early Success Actually Being Underappreciated?

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Is Bryce Harper's Early Success Actually Being Underappreciated?

Bryce Harper is already one of MLB's best all-around outfielders, but it often seems that we overlook the uniqueness of his rapid rise.

Remember, the Washington Nationals centerpiece hasn't even turned 21 yet!

Matt Snyder of CBS Sports notes that Harper and Tony Conigliaro stand alone in league history with multiple seasons of 20-plus home runs at such an early age. That feat is even more impressive when you consider that the All-Star has been enduring through injury for most of 2013, according to CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman (h/t NBC Sports).

You can generate all sorts of jaw-dropping stats about Harper when comparing him to others who were rushed to the majors as teenagers. Success isn't supposed to come so easily when some of your competition has twice as much lifetime baseball experience.

Taking age out of the equation, Baseball-Reference.com tells us that this phenom is:

  • Among 111 players in history to play full-time during his first two seasons (min. 1,000 PA) and post an on-base percentage of at least .350.
  • Slugging above .500 this season with more than 100 games played, which puts him on this 24-man list.
  • One of five guys with 20-plus home runs and 10-plus stolen bases as both a rookie and second-year player.

Most players associated with Harper via the above indexes spent more time than he did in the minor leagues, extra years at the collegiate level or both.

Bleacher Report's Zachary Rymer is convinced that Harper will dominate the sport in 2014. He ranks 27th in the B/R MLB 500 thanks to his advanced plate discipline and power to all fields.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Harper can blame Mike Trout—who's No. 1 on Rymer's list—for raising the bar so high and distorting our expectations. Much like in 2012, Trout is a serious American League MVP candidate, wowing us with his production in both sabermetric and traditional statistical categories. He's undoubtedly better than Harper at this point, utilizing his athleticism more effectively in the field and on the basepaths without compromising his durability.

However, it isn't fair to do a straight comparison.

Both were technically "rookies" last season, but Trout had a head start. The Los Angeles Angels recalled their top prospect in July 2011, and he failed to establish himself. He posted a weak .220/.281/.390 batting line in irregular playing time, and due to that ineffectiveness, he ended up a few at-bats shy of exhausting his rookie eligibility.

Moreover, Harper is still striving to justify the hype he received from Sports Illustrated in 2009. The magazine draped him across the cover, with Tom Verducci dubbing him "baseball's chosen one" and making comparisons to the NBA's LeBron James (at that time already a five-time All-Star and league MVP).

Far too many baseball enthusiasts unfairly condemn Harper because he hasn't yet realized that extraordinary potential:

Elsa/Getty Images

However, few players have excelled at age 19 like Harper did. Even fewer have overcome their opposition's adjustments as 20-year-old MLB sophomores to perform at a higher level.

Today's baseball fan is spoiled with dynamic, young stars: Trout, Yasiel Puig, Manny Machado, Jose Fernandez, Wil Myers and more. Harper has the same sky-high ceiling as them all, plus a later birth date.

Indeed, he is sorely underappreciated.

 

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