Stories, comments and whatever else meant to knock young Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper down a peg are nothing new. The stream of 'em has been steady ever since his grand introduction via Sports Illustrated in 2009.
But what's strange is how much negative noise has been coming from the general direction of Washington D.C. this year. While you'd think that there'd be more appreciation for Harper in D.C. than anywhere else, the talk suggests otherwise.
The latest involves Nationals utility man Kevin Frandsen. Asked on D.C. sports station 106.7 The Fan (h/t Hardball Talk) on Wednesday morning about which of his Washington teammates has impressed him the most in 2014, Frandsen sided with infielder Anthony Rendon.
“Rendon,” he said. “Without a doubt.”
Frandsen elaborated: “He is as impressive as any young player; in all honesty, he’s the best young guy we have. By far. I don’t think there’s anyone in the same sentence as him, as far as young guys.”
Wait, what about Harper? Is Rendon even better than him?
Here's where we're going to be fair: As of right now, this is not an indefensible position.
So as of this moment, yes, I'd have to agree that Rendon is the more desirable player. If that's all Frandsen was getting at, then that's OK.
But he sure didn't make it sound like that's all he was getting at.
Frandsen went on to praise Rendon for having "one of the coolest swings I've seen," especially for a guy who's still only 23 years old. He piled on by praising Rendon for his positional versatility and for having Barry Bonds-like quickness in his hands.
So when Frandsen argued that there's no young player on the Nationals even "in the same sentence" as Rendon, you get the sense he meant period rather than right now.
If so, somewhere out there is Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell nodding his head.
If you missed it, Boswell's the guy who recently argued that once you count Washington's three best pitchers—presumably Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann—and consider what Harper has done in the RBI column since breaking in as a 19-year-old rookie in 2012, he might only be Washington's seventh-best player.
Heck, for all we know, maybe Nationals manager Matt Williams is nodding his head too. He recently refused to set high hopes for Harper by telling MLB.com, "We expect Bryce not to be the MVP."
It's not surprising that Williams thinks this way, as he surely would have been less willing to pencil Harper into the bottom half of his batting order—Harper has hit fifth or lower in 11 of 22 games he's played in this year—if he figured he had an MVP-caliber player on his hands.
Nor, surely, would Williams risk alienating an MVP-caliber player by making an example of him.
Williams did just that on April 19. First he banished Harper (who was still nursing a fresh quad injury at the time) to the bench for jogging down the line on a ground ball back to the pitcher. Then he threw him to the dogs by carefully outlining Harper's assorted crimes to the press.
"No, lack of hustle. That's why he came out of the game," Williams said, via CSNWashington.com. "The inability to run 90 feet.
"We made an agreement. He and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement, that when you play the game that we hustle at all times, that we play the game with intensity and a willingness to win."
Veteran outfielder Jayson Werth—who, as ESPN's Keith Law pointed out, was curiously not disciplined for dogging it on a ground ball the next day on April 20—piled on.
"I've played on teams where if you don't hustle, you get taken out of the game," Werth told CSNWashington.com. "It's pretty standard. I think that's part of the game. You show up here, you be on time, you hustle. Not a lot is asked of us."
At first glance, the pile of material we've just considered isn't all that large...Until you notice that the date is only May 7. For a season that's just a little over a month old, this is quite a bit of negativity to be heaped on one player, and there's no escaping the generally agreed-upon message:
Big-name player though he may be, Harper needs to get the point that he's nothing special yet.
Which would be fine, if he wasn't.
But he is.
You might look at how Harper was playing before he got injured and conclude otherwise, as he was only slashing .289/.352/.422 with one home run and, again, a negative WAR. That's not the kind of start befitting of a special player.
But then you can narrow things down and look at what Harper was doing immediately before his injury. After getting off to a brutal 4-for-25 start to the season that included 11 strikeouts in only six games, he had rebounded to slash .345/.415/.534, with only 10 strikeouts in 16 games.
That this turnaround happened is no surprise, as the guy pulling it off was some kind of awesome at the ages of 19 and 20 in 2012 and 2013.
|Bryce Harper's First Two Seasons|
|Through Age-20 Rank||3||10||16||7||4||4||5||4|
Note: "wRC+ is Weighted Runs Created Plus, an advanced metric that measures a player's total hitting value in runs above average.
In 2012 and 2013, the only Nationals players you could argue were better than Harper were Werth and Ian Desmond. Neither did their work in their age-19 or age-20 seasons, as Harper did.
For perspective, you know what Rendon was doing at the ages of 19 and 20? Playing college ball at Rice. When he was being named Baseball America's Freshman of the Year at the age of 19, Harper was winning the National League Rookie of the Year.
The point is one that I've made before and will make again here: Normal players don't do what Harper did in 2012 and 2013. Only special players do, as you can look at his company among great players through the age of 20 and see names like Mel Ott, Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr.
This is not to suggest that special players deserve special treatment. Though I think we all know that special players get special treatment all the time, all I'm trying to point out is that downplaying either Harper's talent or his accomplishments is silly.
And there's been a little too much of that going on in D.C. this year.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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